A new dimension in the #ColoradoRiver debate — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

Nook on Lake Powell. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

So I’m off to Glen Canyon, to prowl in the innards of that concrete beast, which looks ever more like the hydraulic equivalent of a mastodon since the waters of Lake Powell keep dipping, dipping, dipping – now sitting at 3,527.7 feet above elevation.

Powell is a tad over 25% full.

My mission has to do with the loss of hydroelectric generation. I began thinking about this six or seven years ago, and now it seems we’re on the cusp, although as many have lately noted, the hydro generation has already dropped off significantly. Powell is 37 feet above that minimum power pool level. The Bureau of Reclamation earlier in May announced it will release less water to the lower basin states from Powell, to keep water levels up. It’s getting harder and harder to make the hydraulic empire of the American Southwest work as designed.

Now comes what one Colorado River expert describes as a “huge” declaration. Bruce Babbitt, the governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987 and secretary of Interior during the Clinton presidency, says it’s time for a more substantial rethinking of the Colorado River Compact, single most important agreement governing the Colorado River.

“While I once thought that these aridification scenarios were kind of abstract and way out in the future, I don’t think that anymore,” Babbitt said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Ian James.

“It’s absolutely urgent that we start thinking now, while there’s time, about how we adjust the compact, the regulations, the necessary reductions, in the most careful way so that we limit the damage, which can really be extreme.”

Climate change models had predicted a warming Southwest. The resulting aridification – as opposed to the more ephemeral drought – has been well documented in the 21st century. This winter provides yet another example of at least modestly good snows followed by a runoff substantially below average. As the dry winds blow and the temperatures warm, the moisture gets sucked up, instead of going downstream.

I mused about this after a Thanksgiving trip to Santa Fe that included a side trip to the Bishop’s Lodge, site of the 1922 crafting of the Colorado River Compact among the seven basin states. Their assumptions were badly misaligned with hydrologic reality, as became increasingly evident in the 20th century.

See: Visiting Bishop’s Lodge and the Colorado River Compact

Still, the conventional wisdom has been that the compact was difficult to achieve during a time of assumed plenty. Why would anybody want to open it up now? There was just too much risk, too much potential for inviting paralyzing acrimony.

Instead, in a new era of cooperative, water managers in the 21st century has created end-around agreements. The most recent iteration of end-around is the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. It is being followed by another such plan, to be ready by 2026, requiring harder decisions, more compromises, greater recognition of the water supplies that are little more than half of that were assumed 100 years ago.

More will be needed, said Babbitt.

“We can no longer just kind of muddle along. We really have to think big, because we’re going to have to create a new regulatory framework. And it doesn’t mean that we have to start over from scratch,” Babbitt told the LA Times.

“The Colorado River Compact has worked for 100 years. But there is now a future scenario in which the fixed delivery obligation — from the Upper Basin states at Lees Ferry to California, Arizona and Nevada — simply doesn’t work.”

In this, Babbitt alludes to a clause in the compact, Article III(d), which requires Colorado and other upper-basin states to not cause the river to flow less than 75 million acre-feet over the course of every 10 years. But what if the river is only producing 9 million acre-feet?
Does that mean Denver can’t divert water? Or the Colorado Big-Thompson? Even in Fort Morgan, people drink Colorado River water.

We’re in for a rude reckoning still in Colorado, regardless of how this shakes out on the Colorado River Compact. New landscaping I see in Arvada, where 72% of water comes from the Colorado River Basin, fails to recognize this future. Hurrah for the mayor of Aurora, Mike Coffman, who said it’s time to ban new turf golf courses – just as Las Vegas has decided.

But the language of the compact might be interpreted to say that the Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will absorb nearly all the reality of climate change. Babbitt is saying no, it shouldn’t be.

This interview reverses what Babbitt said in an op-ed published in the Arizona Republic in July 2021. “We have not reached that point,” he said of reconsidering the compact.

Babbitt may have been responding to a paper written by Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, and several others, including Jack Fleck, a New Mexico-based writer and co-author with Kuhn of a book called “Science be Dammed.”

See my March 2020 review here.

“Our basic argument is that climate change has undermined the basic purpose of the compact – an ‘equitable division’ of the use of the waters of the river between the two (upper and lower) basins,” Kuhn explained to me by e-mail.

“I’m surprised (and pleased) how quickly a revered figure like Governor/Secretary Babbitt has come to the conclusion as well. My optimistic view remains that we’re looking at a collective interpretation of the compact that if climate change, not Upper Basin depletions, is the reason that the upper basins can’t meet the 75 million acre-feet every 10 years, there is no compact violation. The chance of a formal amendment to the compact ratified by seven state legislatures and Congress is still very remote.”

I’ll be closely watching where this conversation goes. It would be a huge pivot for the Southwest.

Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS via Environment360

#Water for the #ColoradoRiver Delta in a Dry Year: Binational agreement a model for river management in a #climatechange world — Audubon #COriver #aridification

Water flows in the Colorado River Delta. Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Jennifer Pitt):

The Colorado River is once again flowing in its delta. The flows, which began on May 1, are the result of binational collaboration and deliberate management. The water is dedicated to supporting the ecosystem and local communities in a landscape where the river has not flowed for most years in the past half century. It is a heartening bit of good news for the Colorado River, which earlier this year was designated as America’s most endangered river.

This year’s flow will be very similar to the managed flow in the delta in 2021. The water purposefully bypasses the driest reaches of the delta, diverted from the Colorado River at the border into Mexico’s irrigation system, where it travels via concrete lined canals to be reconnected with the river some 40 miles downstream. From there water flows down the river’s channel, past more than 1000 acres of painstakingly restored riverside forest, towards the Upper Gulf of California. Like last year, this year’s flow is about 35,000 acre-feet of water (11.4 billion gallons), delivered over nearly 5 months from May 1 to September 20. In a year where we cannot seem to escape horrible news about climate change, wildfires, and water shortages, the delta flow is a sign that it is still possible to improve management on the Colorado River. As climate change impacts continue to bear down on the region, this type of management will be more important than ever.

Dozens of scientists are deployed to the field to measure the impact of this water delivery and provide suggestions for how to use a managed flow to improve environmental benefits in a region known to support some 380 bird species including Yellow-billed Cuckoos and Heermann’s Gulls. With continued input of scientists over the years, the design of these flows aims to optimize the location and timing of water deliveries to support restored and remnant river habitats, the birds that use them, and residents of nearby Mexican communities that are rediscovering a river in their midst.

The managed delta flow is the result of improved hydro-diplomacy between the United States and Mexico. The U.S. and Mexican sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission, along with federal water agencies in both countries—the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and CONAGUA—today operate under Minute 323, a 2017 treaty agreement that modernized Colorado River management first established in a 1944 Treaty. Minute 323 recognizes the value of water for the environment, for the river itself, a value the original Treaty did not consider.

Minute 323 may sound like an arcane bit of law, but consider its impact: in 2022, for the first time, a shortage was declared on the Colorado River, and Mexico along with Arizona and Nevada received less than its full allocation of water (there is a parallel U.S. domestic agreement, the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan). This could have been the beginning of a major international conflict—in the 1960’s more than 10,000 Mexicali farmers protested for days on the steps of the American consulate in response to degraded Colorado River water quality from the United States, and eventually Mexico’s President Echeverria brought the concern to an Oval Office conversation with President Nixon. But in 2022, the United States reduced deliveries of Colorado River water to Mexico, and with Minute 323 in place, it was implemented without remark.

As climate change continues to aridify the Colorado River basin, and water availability continues to decline, the provisions in Minute 323 to share water shortages proportionally – equitably – stands as a model of good management. It might even be a helpful model for the seven U.S. states (Ariz., Calif., Colo., N.M., Nev., Utah, and Wyo.) that must develop shortage-sharing agreements among themselves sufficient to adapt to the river’s declining water supply.

The managed delta flow is the result of improved hydro-diplomacy between the United States and Mexico. The U.S. and Mexican sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission, along with federal water agencies in both countries—the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and CONAGUA—today operate under Minute 323, a 2017 treaty agreement that modernized Colorado River management first established in a 1944 Treaty. Minute 323 recognizes the value of water for the environment, for the river itself, a value the original Treaty did not consider.

Minute 323 may sound like an arcane bit of law, but consider its impact: in 2022, for the first time, a shortage was declared on the Colorado River, and Mexico along with Arizona and Nevada received less than its full allocation of water (there is a parallel U.S. domestic agreement, the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan). This could have been the beginning of a major international conflict—in the 1960’s more than 10,000 Mexicali farmers protested for days on the steps of the American consulate in response to degraded Colorado River water quality from the United States, and eventually Mexico’s President Echeverria brought the concern to an Oval Office conversation with President Nixon. But in 2022, the United States reduced deliveries of Colorado River water to Mexico, and with Minute 323 in place, it was implemented without remark.

As climate change continues to aridify the Colorado River basin, and water availability continues to decline, the provisions in Minute 323 to share water shortages proportionally – equitably – stands as a model of good management. It might even be a helpful model for the seven U.S. states (Ariz., Calif., Colo., N.M., Nev., Utah, and Wyo.) that must develop shortage-sharing agreements among themselves sufficient to adapt to the river’s declining water supply.

Minute 323’s impact goes further: under its provisions, the United States committed millions of dollars to help upgrade agricultural water supply infrastructure in the Mexicali Valley, and Mexico has conserved and stored more than 150,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead in the United States, helping to prop up water storage in a reservoir that is dwindling too quickly.

Under Minute 323, the United States and Mexico successfully began to manage the declining Colorado River water supply, helping to improve conditions for water users in both countries, while also making environmental water commitments. Colorado River water users and river lovers alike owe a debt of gratitude to the leaders who negotiated Minute 323, and should ask for nothing less from future Colorado River management agreements.

Is #ColoradoRiver demand management unfair to farmers? It’s complicated — @Land_Desk #COriver #aridification

Sprinklers and Four Corners Power Plant. San Juan County, New Mexico, 2022.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan Thompson):

Last week, [a Colorado online daily] ran an opinion piece about the dwindling Colorado River and what role agriculture may or may not play in helping to shore it up. It was written by Don Schwindt, a Cortez, Colorado, farmer, and Dan Keppen, Executive Director of the Family Farm Alliance. Along with praising a Southwestern Colorado dam, they argue that agriculture is important and “must be protected by ensuring water remains on-farm.”

They go on to say:

“Now, the narrative in some recent media coverage is even more troubling. For some, the current severe drought provides a platform to advocate taking water from farmers to make more available for cities and the environment.

“The hydrology of the West may be changing, but that should not drive hasty decisions. Agricultural water cannot be simply viewed as the default “reservoir” to meet other growing water demands.”

They are referring to “demand management,” which can include encouraging farmers to plant less thirsty crops, to increasing efficiency, to paying farmers to stop watering their fields and leave the water in the river (either buying water rights and permanently transferring them, or leasing them when needed on a temporary basis).

As I read the piece, I was struck less by the arguments, which were fairly predictable, than by my reactions to the arguments. One sentence would have me scoffing, the next nodding in agreement, and another both nodding and snorting derisively. That’s not because I’m insane. It’s because these issues—the “Law of the River,” agriculture’s role in culture and ecosystems, and the Colorado River system—are complicated as all get out. And that sometimes means that the only workable solutions to the growing problems on the river are not always vary palatable. I like farmers, for example, but I also like rivers and the fish in them. It’s getting more and more difficult to have both.

The following is an attempt at a Data Dump response of sorts to the column.

The Colorado River is facing a serious supply-demand imbalance. A century ago, when the framers of the Colorado Compact got together to divvy up the river’s waters, they made a few mistakes. First, and most egregious, they didn’t include tribal nations in the negotiations, despite the fact that tribes are sovereign nations and collectively are entitled to first rights to all the water in the river. That was just wrong. Second, they overestimated the amount of water in the river, which in some ways was an honest screw up, given the records they had to work from. And, third, they parceled out too big a portion of the water they thought was in the river, leaving too small of a buffer in case their calculations were off (they were).

Natural Flow is an estimate of how much water would have naturally run past Lee’s Ferry if there were no dams or diversions upstream. It is calculated using the actual flow, historic flows, and upstream consumptive uses. Bureau of Reclamation modeling is complete to 2019; I extrapolated 2020 and 2021 based on Lake Powell inflows. The 1922 Colorado River Compact gave 7.5 million acre feet to the Upper Basin, 7.5 MAF to the Lower Basin, and (in the ‘40s) 1.5 MAF to Mexico, based on early 1900s observations. As the graph above shows, the average flows dropped below that level a decade later and stayed there aside from a brief respite in the 1980s. Source: USBR

The result: The river is over-allocated, and would be even if climate change were not a factor. So, supply was already lagging behind demand two decades ago, when the Southwest entered the megadrought in a dramatic way (i.e. 2002, the year of our desiccation). Now the supply is diminishing while demand holds steady, which is rapidly drawing down Lakes Powell and Mead (and other reservoirs). With those huge water “banks” at a critically low level, the Colorado River Basin is at its breaking point. Demand must be slashed, quickly and significantly.

While overall demand on the Colorado River trended upward from 1970 to the late 1990s, it plateaued when the region entered the current megadrought. Although this data only goes to 2010, the plateau has pretty much held. But at over 14 MAF per year, demand is significantly higher than what the river has supplied most years. Note that more water is lost to reservoir evaporation than is sent to Mexico. Source: USBR Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.

The logical way to make big cuts in consumption is to go to the biggest consumers. And the biggest user of Colorado River water, by far, is not lawns, not golf courses, not the Bellagio fountain in Vegas. It is agriculture: all of those orchards, cornfields, alfalfa fields, ranches, and so on. It’s true in the Upper Basin, in the Lower Basin, and in each state except Nevada, which uses virtually all of its relatively minuscule portion of the river to keep Las Vegas from shriveling up and dissolving back into the desert.

Please visit this post at http://LandDesk.org to see larger, higher resolution images. Note that in New Mexico energy takes up a relatively large share of water. This is mostly for the coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region, which use billions of gallons of water each year for cooling, steam-generation and other purposes. In some cases, some of this water is returned to the river, but the San Juan Generating Station—scheduled to close this year—is a zero-discharge facility, meaning all of its water use is “consumptive.” Source: USBR.

Farms’ outsized water guzzling may seem surprising, especially since residential development has been gobbling up farmland in recent decades and ag makes up a smaller and smaller portion of these states’ economies. But crops need water in the arid West and, besides, the farmers tend to have most of the water rights. And Western water law and custom encourage folks to use all of the water they have a right to, conservation be damned—the motto, “use it or lose it,” is pounded into many a Western irrigator’s head: Take all of the water to which you’re entitled and then some, whether you need it or not, or else it might end up on your neighbor’s field or, God forbid, flow back into the river!

Montezuma Tunnel entrance.

Schwindt/Keppen write, in reference to diverting Dolores River water onto the farms of Southwest Colorado’s Montezuma Valley:

“The valley’s irrigated ecosystem also improved, further enhancing critically important environments for wildlife and generating other cultural benefits. Irrigated agricultural lands provide groundwater storage, open space, and riparian habitat and wildlife corridors. They also serve as important buffers between public wildlands and expanding urban and suburban areas.”

And it’s true, kind of. It’s a stretch to say irrigation enhances the existing ecosystem, but it certainly creates its own, new ecosystems which can be quite vibrant and beautiful. Leaky ditches are especially good at feeding new wetlands, willows, cattails, cottonwoods, and birds and other wildlife. But what irrigation bestows on previously arid landscapes, it takes from once wild rivers. That is especially true on the Dolores, where in the late 1800s irrigators began diverting its waters out of the Dolores River watershed and into the San Juan River watershed, meaning the runoff did not go back into the river. That essentially dried the lower Dolores right up.

The same was happening all over the region. In the late 1880s ichthyologist David Starr Jordan surveyed area rivers. Here’s what he observed, not about the Dolores, specifically, but about the general state of streams in Colorado at the time:

Via The Land Desk.

But then came the Dolores Project, McPhee Dam and Reservoir, which Schwindt and Keppen say “put water in the dry Dolores riverbed.” Well, no, not really. What it did is take water out of the river during spring runoff and then release some of it later in the year into the riverbed that had been dried out by irrigation diversions.

McPhee Reservoir. JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

The dam started impounding water in 1983, in the midst of a string of unusually wet years. During that era, the dam did its job. The current irrigators got a more stable supply of water. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe got both drinking water from the project as well as enough to irrigate a major agricultural enterprise near the toe of Ute Mountain, providing much needed economic development. The Town of Dove Creek receives water from the project as do the formerly dryland farmers, allowing them to diversify their crops. And still the year-round flows below the dam were enough to build and sustain a cold-water fishery for trout in the first dozen or so miles below the dam and a habitat for native fish below that. In some ways the dam had set the stage for a win-win-win situation.

The Dolores River shows us what’s at stake in the fight to protect the American West — Conservation Colorado

Until it didn’t. That riverbed below the dam? It’s dry more years than not. Last year farmers had to fallow some or all of their fields. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe received only about 10 percent of its usual irrigation water, forcing it to fallow fields; the Town of Dove Creek faced the prospect of losing its drinking water supply altogether; and releases from the dam for the lower river were cut to 10 cubic feet per second, a mere trickle. For several consecutive weeks in June and July the river gauge at Slickrock registered zero. Fish died off, boating has been nearly non-existent most years, and the dearth of high spring water has allowed tamarisk and Russian olive to proliferate.

This spring’s flows on the Dolores River above the dam have actually been somewhat healthy, peaking out (rather early) at nearly 2,000 cubic feet per second.

And yet virtually none of that is making it past the dam (yes, that flat black line at the bottom represents releases. It’s at about 7.5 cubic feet per second, a mere trickle, and water managers say they will increase it to a whopping 25 cfs later this year, which is about enough to float a stick):

And even with good flows and low releases, Dolores Project irrigators are expected to get only 18% of their allocation this year. That’s up from 10% last year, but still. The dam isn’t doing the job it’s meant to do, which is to insulate users from drought. And yet, Schwindt and Keppen say the solution is not to try to reduce demand, but rather to “seriously assess projects that enhance water supplies.” They and the Farm Alliance suggest forest restoration, as well as building more water storage, i.e. dams. That won’t be enough.

Anyway, back to demand management. I think most of us can agree that farms shouldn’t be dried to allow cities to grow heedlessly, or to allow urban folks to water big lawns or keep parks green. And we can also all agree that everyone needs to manage their own demand, from the coal power plants to cities and towns to ski areas. Cities need to enhance efficiency and incentivize conservation by banning lawns, structuring water rates to discourage waste, requiring water-efficient appliances in new homes, and limiting growth. Reusing treated wastewater should be the norm. Coal plants should be shut down. Data centers, which can use as much as 1 million gallons of water per day, probably shouldn’t be sited in water-scarce areas (i.e. the Southwest).

But as the consumption graphs above make clear, all of that will only go so far. Agriculture is the biggest consumer of water, so demand management in that realm will also pay the highest dividends. This doesn’t necessarily mean fallowing vast tracts of farmland. It might just mean irrigating more efficiently, plugging leaks on ditches, or switching to less water-intensive, more nutritionally dense crops. Land Desk readers will probably know what I’m saying: Maybe plant a little less alfalfa, instead of more of it!

I know, I know, we need that alfalfa to feed the cows to make our cheeseburgers. I get it. But here’s the thing: A lot of that alfalfa is going overseas.

In other words, we are exporting our increasingly scarce Colorado River water—in the form of hay bales—to China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. I think the agriculture industry can probably handle a little bit of demand management.

Dolores River watershed

“It’s absolutely urgent that we start thinking now, while there’s time, about how we adjust the [#ColoradoRiver Compact]…in the most careful way” — Bruce Babbit via The Los Angeles Times #COriver #aridfication

Bruce Babbitt, former secretary of the Interior and Arizona governor, said modifying the Colorado River Compact was not necessary for long-lasting solutions in 2019 but has now acknowledged the need. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

Click the link to read the article on the Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who oversaw management of the river under President Clinton, said it’s become clear that the 1922 Colorado River Compact should be revamped to adapt to the reduced amount of water that is available as global warming compounds the 22-year megadrought in the watershed. Babbitt said that a few years ago, he had thought the seven states could get by while leaving the agreement unchanged. But the Colorado River Basin has been drying out so rapidly with rising temperatures, he said, that the pact should be updated to allow the states to proportionally scale back their water use to deal with what scientists describe as the aridification of the West.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck.

“While I once thought that these aridification scenarios were kind of abstract and way out in the future, I don’t think that anymore,” Babbitt said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It’s absolutely urgent that we start thinking now, while there’s time, about how we adjust the compact, the regulations, the necessary reductions, in the most careful way so that we limit the damage, which can really be extreme.”

[…]

Babbitt said problems in the Colorado River Compact include how it was written, based on assumptions of much larger flows, and how certain provisions become unworkable under such dry conditions…One big reason they no longer work, Babbitt said, is that the century-old agreement includes a provision requiring the Upper Basin states to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet per year to the Lower Basin, the largest share of which goes to California. The Upper Basin states face future scenarios in which they would be required to make huge and disproportionate reductions in water use, Babbitt said.

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The marinas at #Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir won’t open this season as the threat of a #water release to #LakePowell looms — Colorado Public Radio #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A longer walk from the dock to the water is in store for boaters at the Elk Creek marina, Blue Mesa Reservoir. Blue Mesa is being drawn down to feed critically low Lake Powell, as continued dry weather and rising demand deplete the Colorado River.
(Courtesy photo/National Park Service) August 2021.

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Michael Elizabeth Sakas). Here’s an excerpt:

Last year, the U.S. Department of the Interior [dropped the reservoir level] 8 feet…from Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison to be sent downstream to Lake Powell. The emergency action was needed to prop up water levels in the nation’s second-largest reservoir, which has hit its lowest level on record amid a 20-year, climate change-fueled megadrought in the Colorado River basin. The drop in water levels led to an early closure of the marinas, cutting six weeks out of the lake’s five-month tourism season. The National Park Service told everyone who stored their boats at the marinas that they had 10 days to remove their boats from the reservoir.

Federal and state officials said the plan is to leave Blue Mesa alone this year so it can start to recover. But they acknowledge the Colorado reservoir might be tapped again if Lake Powell needs more water to protect its ability to produce hydropower for millions of people across the West. Because of this possibility, the National Park Service has decided not to open Blue Mesa’s marinas this year…

Loken worries that the closures will hurt the local economy, which depends on recreation and tourism. While the ramp at Elk Creek will remain open, closing the docks means hundreds of people won’t be able to keep larger boats in the water for summer. Loken said many of those boat owners live out of town and don’t want to drive back and forth with their boats each time they want to visit.

Lake Powell does need more water to protect its ability to keep producing hydropower. This year, the federal government plans to take water out of the Flaming Gorge reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border while also holding back releases to downstream states. Loken said since projections show the drought will remain and likely worsen with human-caused climate change, people need to change how the Colorado River and its reservoirs are used.

A fleet of rafts makes its way down the Green River toward its confluence with the Yampa River. Future potential releases of water out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir to boost levels in Lake Powell shape the flows on the Green River, although it’s not clear how the releases may change flow levels. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smity

Far from #LakePowell, #drought punishes another Western dam — The Los Angeles Times #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

View below Flaming Gorge Dam from the Green River, eastern Utah. Photo credit: USGS

Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Sammy Roth). Here’s an excerpt:

Flaming Gorge is clearly a marvel of engineering, from pendulum-like “plumb lines” that help Reclamation employees ensure the 60-year-old concrete structure isn’t moving around too much, to “weep holes” that reduce pressure buildup by allowing water to seep through fissures in the canyon walls on either side of the dam. Electric lines extend upward from the blockish power plant, soaring out of the canyon through a series of transmission towers that send carbon-free energy to the Black Hills, Burbank and beyond…

The Biden administration said this month it would release an extra 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir over the next year, as part of a desperate effort to stop Powell from falling so low that Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate power. That’s on top of the 125,000 acre-feet that Flaming Gorge contributed to Powell in a first-of-its kind series of releases last year…

Hydropower has long been a backbone of the Western power grid, with rivers from the Colorado to the Columbia fueling the growth of cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix and Seattle. And even as some environmental activists campaign to demolish certain dams and restore the ecosystems they destroyed, hydropower turbines have become an increasingly valuable tool for keeping the lights on after sundown, when solar panels stop generating electricity. The threat of power shortages is real — especially on stiflingly hot summer evenings when the entire West is baking, and people have no choice but to keep blasting their air conditioners after sundown. Those are the kinds of conditions that prompted rolling blackouts in California in August 2020, with state officials warning that the potential for outages could be worse this summer.

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com
Utah Rivers map via Geology.com

As #LakePowell dries up, the US turns to creative accounting for a short-term fix — The #Water Desk #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on The Water Desk website (Jake Bittle, Grist). Here’s an excerpt:

A new agreement calls for Western states to leave their drinking water in the reservoir — and act as if they didn’t.

Late last week, the states agreed to forfeit their water from Lake Powell in order to ensure that the reservoir can still produce power. The deal puts a finger in the metaphorical dike, postponing an inevitable reckoning with the years-long drought that has parched the Colorado River — and a wrenching tradeoff between power access and water access for millions. It does so, in part, through an unusual act of hydrological accounting.

The deal has two parts. The first and more straightforward part is that the federal government will move 500,000 acre-feet of water (about 162 billion gallons) from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir into Lake Powell, bumping up water levels in the latter body. Flaming Gorge, which stretches across Wyoming and Utah, is mostly used for water recreation, so the immediate effects of the transfer will be minimal. The feds could do more of these water transfers later in the year if things get worse, drawing on water from other nearby reservoirs.

The second part is more complicated — and less helpful. In ordinary circumstances, the Bureau of Reclamation releases water from Lake Powell into an even larger reservoir called Lake Mead, from which it then flows to households and farms across the Southwest. As part of the deal, the states that rely on Mead water are agreeing to leave about 480,000 acre-feet of that water in Lake Powell, thus lowering the water levels in Mead. (Reclamation already announced earlier this year that it would delay the release of 350,000 acre-feet of water in Powell in anticipation of spring snow runoff.)

Western river compacts were innovative in the 1920s but couldn’t foresee today’s #water challenges — The Conversation


Colorado River water flows through a canal that feeds farms in Casa Grande, Ariz., on July 22, 2021.
AP Photo/Darryl Webb

Patricia J. Rettig, Colorado State University

The Western U.S. is in a water crisis, from California to Nebraska. An ongoing drought is predicted to last at least through July 2022. Recent research suggests that these conditions may be better labeled aridification – meaning that warming and drying are long-term trends.

On the Colorado River, the country’s two largest reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – are at their lowest levels in 50 years. This could threaten water supplies for Western states and electricity generation from the massive hydropower turbines embedded in the lakes’ dams. In August 2021 the federal government issued a first-ever water shortage declaration for the Colorado, forcing supply cuts in several states.

The seven Colorado River Basin states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – signed a water sharing agreement, the Colorado River Compact, in 1922. Some observers are now calling for renegotiating the compact to correct errors and oversights. Nebraska and Colorado are also arguing over water from the South Platte River, which they share under a separate agreement signed in 1923.

A black and white photo shows men in suits gathered around a desk covered with papers
Delph Carpenter, standing at center, at the signing of bills approving the Colorado River and South Platte River compacts in 1925.
Colorado State University Water Resources Archive, CC BY-ND

My work as head archivist for Colorado State University’s Water Resources Archive gives me a unique perspective on these conflicts. Our collection includes the papers of Delph Carpenter, a lawyer who developed the concept of interstate river compacts and negotiated both the Colorado and South Platte agreements.

Carpenter’s drafts, letters, research and reports show that he believed compacts would reduce litigation, preserve state autonomy and promote the common good. Indeed, many states use them now. Viewing Carpenter’s documents with hindsight, we can see that interstate river compacts were an innovative solution 100 years ago – but were written for a West far different from today.

Water for development

In the early 1900s, there was plenty of water to go around. But there weren’t enough dams, canals or pipelines to store, move or make use of it. Devastating floods in California and Arizona spurred plans for building dams to hold back high river flows.

With the Reclamation Act of 1902, Congress directed the Interior Department to develop infrastructure in the West to supply water for irrigation. As the Reclamation Service, which later became the powerful Bureau of Reclamation, moved forward, it began planning for dams that could also generate hydropower. Low-cost electricity and irrigation water would become important drivers of development in the West.

Carpenter worried that downstream states, building dams for their own needs, would demand water from upstream states. He was especially attuned to this issue as a native of mountainous Colorado, the source of four major rivers – the Platte, the Arkansas, the Rio Grande and the Colorado. Carpenter wanted to see upper basin states “adequately protected before the construction of the structures upon the lower river.”

Map of the Colorado River basin
The Colorado River flows through seven U.S. states and Mexico, ending at the Gulf of California.
USGS

Carpenter also knew about interstate water conflicts. In 1916, a group of Nebraska irrigators sued farmers in Colorado for drying up the South Platte River at the state line. Carpenter was already lead counsel for Colorado in Wyoming v. Colorado, a case involving the Laramie River that began in 1911 and would not be resolved until 1922.

Laramie and Poudre Tunnel inlet October 3, 2010.

Carpenter viewed such legal battles as wastes of time and money. But when he proposed negotiating interstate river compacts, he was met with “skepticism, indifference, failure of comprehension or open ridicule,” he recollected in a 1934 essay.

Eventually Carpenter persuaded his Colorado clients to resolve their litigation with Nebraska by negotiating a compact to share water from the South Platte. It took seven years of data collection and discussion, but Carpenter believed the agreement would ensure “permanent peace with our neighboring state.”

Or maybe not. Today Nebraska officials want to revive an unfinished canal to pull water from the South Platte in Colorado, citing concerns about Colorado’s numerous planned upstream water projects. With Colorado officials pledging to aggressively defend their state’s water rights, the states could be headed to court.

Portioning out the Colorado

West of the Continental Divide, the Colorado River flows more than 1,400 miles southwest to the Gulf of California in Mexico. Once, its delta was a lush network of lagoons; now the river peters out in the desert because states take so much water out of it upstream.

In 2014, the U.S. and Mexico started collaborating to restore the ecosystems of the Colorado River Delta.

When settlers developed the West, their prevailing attitude was that water reaching the sea was wasted, so people aimed to use it all. California had a bigger population than the other six Colorado River Basin states combined, and Carpenter worried that California’s river use could hinder Colorado under the prior appropriation doctrine, which dictates that the first person to use water acquires a right to use it in the future. With the U.S. Reclamation Service studying the Colorado to find good dam sites, Carpenter also feared that the federal government would take control of river development.

Carpenter studied international treaties as models for river compacts. He knew that U.S. states had a right under Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution to make agreements with each other. And he believed that solving water conflicts between states required “statesmanship of the highest order.”

In 1920, officials agreed to try his approach. After the states and the federal government adopted legislation to authorize the process, representatives began meeting as the Colorado River Commission in January 1922, with then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as chair. Meeting minutes show that negotiations nearly collapsed several times, but the end goal of rapid river development held them together.

The commissioners reached agreement in 11 months, adopting a final version of the compact in November 1922. It allocated fixed amounts of water – measured in absolute acre-feet, not percentages of the river’s flow – to the upper and lower basins. With water levels in the river declining, this approach has proved to be a major challenge today.

In 2021 the Interior Department declared a water shortage for the Colorado River, triggering supply cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

At their meetings, the commissioners discussed both the variability of the river’s flow and their lack of sufficient data for long-term planning. Yet in the final compact they allowed for dividing up surplus water starting in 1963. We know now that they used optimistic flow numbers measured during a particularly wet period.

A hotter, more crowded West

Today the West faces conditions that Carpenter and his peers did not anticipate. In 1922, Hoover imagined that the basin’s population, which totaled about 457,000 in 1915, might quadruple in the future. Today, the Colorado River supplies some 40 million people – more than 20 times Hoover’s projection.

The commissioners also didn’t anticipate climate change, which is making the west hotter and drier and shrinking the river’s volume. Some water experts say a new agreement is needed that recognizes an era of shortage. Others say renegotiation is politically impossible. The states signed a drought contingency plan in 2019, but it runs through only 2026.

Testifying before Congress in 1926 about the Colorado River Compact, Hoover stated, “If we can provide for equity for the next 40 to 75 years we can trust to the generation after the next to be as intelligent as we are today.” In the face of extreme Western water challenges, it is now up to Westerners to meet – or exceed – that expectation.

[Understand new developments in science, health and technology, each week. Subscribe to The Conversation’s science newsletter.]The Conversation

Patricia J. Rettig, Head Archivist, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Stumbling Toward “Day Zero” on the #ColoradoRiver: Urgent action needed from seven states and feds to avoid #water crisis — Audubon #COriver #aridification

Common Raven. Photo: Doug Kliewer/Audubon Photography Awards

Click the link to read the call to action on the Audubon website (Jennifer Pitt):

The Colorado River Basin is inching ever closer to “Day Zero,” a term first used in Cape Town, South Africa when they anticipated the day in 2018 that taps would run dry. Lakes Powell and Mead, the Colorado River’s two enormous reservoirs, were full in 2000, storing more than four years of the river’s average annual flow. For more than two decades water users have been sipping at that supply, watching them decline. Long-term drought and climate change is making this issue potentially catastrophic.

Today the entire Colorado River reservoir storage system is 2/3 empty.

Moreover, federal officials project that within two years, the water level in Lake Powell could be so low that it would be impossible for water to flow through the dam’s turbine intakes. When that happens, it’s clear the dam will no longer generate hydropower, but it’s also possible the dam will not release any water at all. That’s because the only other way for water to move through the dam when the water is low is a series of outlet tubes that were not designed, and have never been tested, for long-term use.

What happens if little to no water can be released from Lake Powell? Water supply risks multiply for everyone who uses water downstream. That includes residents of big cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, and farmers and ranchers in Arizona, California and Mexico who grow the majority of our nation’s winter produce, as well as numerous Native American tribes. Some of these water users have alternative supplies, but some—including Las Vegas residents, Colorado River tribes and most farmers—do not. Day Zero for these water users might not happen immediately as Lake Mead, the reservoir fed by Lake Powell still has some water in it. But without flows from upstream to replenish it, Lake Mead would also be at risk of no longer being able to release water.

There is also the river itself. Think of it—no water flowing through the Grand Canyon. No water flowing in the Colorado River for hundreds of miles downstream from Hoover Dam. That’s an ecological disaster in the making for 400 bird species and a multitude of other wildlife, exceeding the 20th century devastation of the Colorado River Delta.

In recent days, state and federal officials have announced plans to address the immediate crisis. These plans will help, but only to avert the immediate danger looming over the basin for the current year. They do nothing to decrease the unrelenting risks of Colorado River water supplies and demands out of balance, because all they do is move water from one place to another. The federal plan to reduce water releases from the Glen Canyon Dam will help this year, as Lake Powell will hold onto water that would otherwise have flowed downstream to Lake Mead. Notably, Lower Basin water users will calculate their uses as if the water was in Lake Mead anyway, delaying deeper cuts and further depleting the reservoir. The Upper Basin states also plan to release additional water from Flaming Gorge reservoir upriver in Wyoming to increase the inflow into Lake Powell. This too will help Powell, but it will reduce the supply in Flaming Gorge reservoir. The plan acknowledges this supply may not be recovered unless and until storage at Lake Powell considerably improves. Both of these plans will move water and help protect the Glen Canyon Dam’s operations in the near-term.

Moving water does not address the fundamental challenge in the Colorado River Basin and does not offer any real certainty for water users or the river itself in any corner of the basin. Colorado River water demands exceed supplies. Audubon knows that fundamentally, because we work on restoring habitat in the Colorado River Delta, where the river has not flowed regularly for half a century. With major reservoirs only one third full, plans that continue to drain them are not sustainable plans.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck.

Climate change is drying out the Colorado River. In the last two decades, the river’s flow has been 20 percent less than the average flow recorded in the 20th century. Hoping for a rainy season won’t fix this. Today’s water supply conditions are likely to be among the best we see over the coming decades.

What’s needed now, urgently, is for federal and state water managers to work, in partnership with tribes and other stakeholders, to take the steps necessary to build confidence in the enduring management of the Colorado River. This will require focus and dedicated resources to develop and implement plans that put water demands into balance with supplies. That means moving beyond year-to-year reactions to imminent risks to engage in planning that promotes water conservation. Water conservation means using less water, preferably managed in a way that both respects our system of water rights and supports society’s 21st century values, including economic stability for urban and rural communities, allowances for Native American tribes to realize benefit from their water rights, and reliable water supplies for nature.

People and birds rely on the Colorado River, and Audubon will continue to work with partners to advocate for and implement solutions. We know what works. Water conservation pilots implemented throughout the basin and across municipal and agricultural sectors have been successful. Investments in infrastructure upgrades have durably made water uses more efficient, and investments in habitat restoration have benefited ecosystems and the birds that rely on them. Flexible water sharing mechanisms have modernized water uses while protecting legal water rights and helped Tribes secure benefits. There is no time like the present to begin implementing these solutions at scale. They should be the foundation for new rules for how we use and protect the Colorado River.

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

#LakePowell dangerously close to dropping too low, Grand County may suffer as a result — The Sky-Hi News #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Wildlife biologist Bill Vetter and Western Rivers Regional Program Manager with Audubon Rockies Abby Burk walk along an irrigation ditch in Grand County. An avian monitoring program aims to learn more about how birds use irrigated agriculture.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Sky-Hi News website (Meg Soyars). Here’s an excerpt:

If the lake does drop lower than 3,490 feet, it is uncertain how much water, if any, will be delivered to the communities that rely on it. Lake Powell doesn’t only supply water to millions of Americans, it also provides power through turbines at the Glen Canyon Dam. Below 3,490 feet, the dam will not be able to provide hydropower. All Colorado Basin states receive power from the dam. Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, explained that the emergency at Lake Powell may seem far removed from Grand County, but it’s closely connected. Forty million people, from Wyoming to Mexico, rely on water from the Colorado River, including every Grand County resident. When someone turns on the tap here, they are getting the same water that will eventually get sent down to Lake Powell for a California (or other regional) resident…

Klancke feels the Lower Basin is demanding too much water from Lake Powell, and this may decrease the water supply of Upper Basin states like Colorado.

“My concern for Grand County is that our water rights will be cut into to make up the difference,” he said. “I worry they might go after our agricultural rights first … and (agriculture) makes up a huge part of our economy.”

Report: Insights Gained on Agricultural #Water #Conservation for Water Security in the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin — Hutchins Water Center #COriver #aridification

Photo from http://trmurf.com/about/

Click the link to read the report on the Hutchins Water Center website (Hannah Holm). Here’s the introduction:

A series of hot, dry years in the Upper Colorado River Basin has led to increasing concern about the security of water supplies at region-wide and local scales for the following purposes and sectors:

• Maintaining compact compliance and preventing Lake Powell’s water level from dropping too low to generate power.
• Maintaining agricultural production and the vitality of rural communities.
• Maintaining municipal and industrial water security.
• Maintaining river ecosystems.

Without a strategic, collaborative approach to addressing these issues, there is a risk that individual entities will act independently to secure their water supplies against climate and legal uncertainties. This could lead to more permanent transfers from agriculture, with detrimental impacts on rural communities and unpredictable impacts on river ecosystems.

Over the past several years, there have been numerous explorations into new approaches to meeting community and environmental needs in the Upper Basin, including deliberate, temporary, and compensated reductions in water use in order to help balance supply and demand in the Colorado River system, share water supplies between agriculture and cities, and aid troubled streams.

This report distills insights from these explorations that can help illuminate how such deliberate, temporary reductions in water use could play a role in:

• Enhancing long-term water security for farms, municipalities, industries and rivers in the Upper Basin (upstream objectives).
• Compact compliance and protection of power generation capacity in Lake Powell (downstream objectives).

In this report, the term “strategic conservation” will be used to describe these deliberate reductions in water use to meet specific goals.

The insights covered in this report focus on the following topics:

• Water user interest
• Agronomic impacts of reducing water use
• Monitoring and verification of saved water
• Shepherding and conveyance of conserved water
• Pricing considerations
• Environmental considerations
• Additional considerations

For each topic, key insights and remaining uncertainties are highlighted and illustrative research, experiences and resources are described. Links to documentation are provided wherever possible.

Unprecedented solutions coming to the #LakePowell crisis — 9News.com #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Flaming Gorge Reservoir July 2020. Photo credit: Utah DWR

Click the link to read the article on the 9News.com website (Cory Reppenhagen). Here’s an excerpt:

The Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) identifies an elevation of 3,525 feet as a target level to take action because a level of 3,490 feet would threaten the infrastructure and hydropower resources at Glen Canyon Dam.

“We are concerned, we are watching,” said Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Governor Polis’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “There are significant challenges facing the Colorado River system.”

She said that two unprecedented measures are being taken to help prevent Lake Powell from hitting that critical level of 3,490 feet. One, which has already been approved, is to move an unprecedented 500,000 acre-feet of water out of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in northern Utah and southern Wyoming, into Lake Powell over the next 12 months. A second proposal, which [was approved by the basin states this week], is to withhold nearly 480,000 acre-feet of water that is scheduled to be released from Lake Powell and sent to Lake Mead.

#ColoradoRiver states agree to federal request to hold back #water in #LakePowell — The #Nevada Independent #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell, just upstream from Glen Canyon Dam. At the time of this photo, in May 2021, Lake Powell was 34% full. (Ted Wood/The Water Desk)

Click the link to read the article on The Nevada Independent website (Daniel Rothberg). Here’s an excerpt:

In a letter sent Friday, the seven states that use the Colorado River agreed with the U.S. Department of Interior and recommended that federal water managers take an emergency action aimed at stabilizing a dwindling Lake Powell, one of the main storage reservoirs on the river.

Earlier this month, federal water managers warned the states, including Nevada, that they were considering an emergency action to hold water back in Lake Powell, an attempt to stabilize the reservoir at serious risk of losing the ability to generate hydropower and deliver water to Page, Arizona, a city with roughly 7,500 residents, and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation.

Under the existing operating rules governing the Colorado River, the federal government was required to release 7.48 million acre-feet of water from Lake Powell downstream to Lake Mead, which stores water for Arizona, California, Nevada and the country of Mexico (an acre-foot is the amount of water that can fill one acre of land to a depth of 1 foot). But such a release would have led to further declines at Lake Powell, adding to the risk facing the Colorado River Basin.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Interior asked the states to consider a deviation from the existing operating rules — to hold back 480,000 acre-feet in Lake Powell. On Friday morning, representatives from the seven states within the Colorado River Basin sent the Department of Interior a joint letter agreeing with the proposed action, but requested that it “be implemented in a manner that is operationally neutral” so as not to trigger cuts for any state.

“It is our collective judgment that additional cooperative actions should be taken this spring to reduce the risk of Lake Powell declining below critical elevations,” state representatives wrote.

Output capacity of the dam’s turbines decreases in direct proportion to the reservoir’s surface elevation. As Lake Powell Shrinks, the dam generates less power. Source: Argonne National Laboratory.

Daniel Rothberg is a staff reporter covering water, climate change and public land.

New forecast: #LakePowell electricity production to drop, as officials race to boost #water levels — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Electricity produced at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam, which serves some 50 Colorado utilities, and dozens of others in the Colorado River Basin, has been cut in half by the 20-year drought, with power levels over the next two years projected to be 47% lower than normal, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“We’re going to be generating less than we have in quite some time. It will be among the lowest years of generation ever,” said Nick Williams, power manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River Region in an interview last week.

The grim forecast comes as water officials race to bolster Lake Powell’s water levels. On April 8, Reclamation announced it would likely keep more water in Lake Powell, reducing releases from the planned 7.5 million acre-feet to 7 million acre-feet, a move that could trigger emergency water cutbacks in Arizona, California and Nevada.

Hydroelectric Dam

At the same time, electric utilities across the West are looking for other green power options and hoping that hydropower production won’t stop altogether. According to Reclamation, there is a 27% chance that Powell will still stop generating electricity completely over the next four years.

“If Glen Canyon Dam ceases to operate, we are going to have to replace that power somewhere else and it will have a bigger carbon footprint,” said Bryan Hannegan, CEO of Holy Cross Energy, which buys Lake Powell’s hydropower to serve customers in Western Colorado.

The picture was much different 60 years ago, when the giant storage reservoir on the Colorado River was filling, its electricity helping power the West and the revenue from its power sales helping fund endangered fish protection programs across the Colorado River Basin.

Back then, Hannegan said, “We made an assumption that our WAPA (Western Area Power Administration) allocation would be firm, reliable and always there. Now, though, we know that it’s not firm, it’s not reliable, and it’s coming at a much higher cost.”

Late last fall WAPA, which operates the electric grid and distributes the power to utilities, raised rates 30% to cover reductions in power revenue. Few expected to ever see this drop in hydropower production, let alone consider what to do if Glen Canyon were to cease electricity production entirely.

“The forecast is changing daily and there are still a lot of variables,” said Lisa Meiman, a spokeswoman for WAPA. ”But it is concerning. This is the big warning bell.”

The drop in the power forecast comes as Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming prepare to finalize a new drought operations plan for the giant river system. The draft plan is expected to be released next week, according to Becki Bryant, a spokeswoman for Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River Region.

The critical issue is how to maintain the lake at 3,525, which marks an elevation that is the top of the liquid buffer zone designed to protect the lake’s mighty electricity turbines.

Last July, to protect the 3,525 buffer zone, Reclamation ordered emergency water releases from three reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa and New Mexico’s Navajo.

Despite those releases, Powell dropped below 3,525 last month, hitting 3,523, another historic drought landmark.

Though the 2022 forecast isn’t expected to be finalized until later this month, water officials expect that more water will have to be released from Upper Basin storage reservoirs this summer because inflows into the lake from the drought-stressed Colorado River are expected to be well below average again, in the 60% to 80% range.

Becky Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water planning agency. She also sits on the Upper Colorado River Commission. Mitchell declined to discuss the pending drought operations plan. But in a statement, she said, “The Upper Basin States are working collaboratively with the Bureau of Reclamation to draft a 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan outlining potential releases from Upper Basin reservoirs in an effort to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell. The Upper Basin reservoirs have already provided 161,000 acre-feet of water pursuant to the ’imminent need‘ provision of the Drought Response Operations Agreement, including 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado. Water availability, appropriate timing of releases, and impacts on other resources are all being considered as the 2022 Plan is being drafted.”

Across the region, water utilities are in high-alert mode, preparing for another dry year on the Colorado River and holding hope that the Upper Basin reservoirs can be protected as long as possible from large-scale drought releases.

“The forecast isn’t great,” said Kyle Whitaker, Colorado River Manager for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, one of the largest diverters of water in the headwaters region of the river.

“It’s better than last year, but we’ll just have to see what the next two to four weeks holds for precipitation.”

At the same time, power producers are gearing up to craft a fallback plan for extending hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam if water levels continue to fall.

“We have to take a strong look at what we will do in the unlikely event that Lake Powell stops producing hydropower,” said WAPA’s Meiman. “It’s not a hypothetical situation anymore.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

#LakePowell is critically low, and still shrinking. Here’s what happens next — KUNC #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell, just upstream from Glen Canyon Dam. At the time of this photo, in May 2021, Lake Powell was 34% full. (Ted Wood/The Water Desk)

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

Lake Powell is in crisis. The nation’s second-largest reservoir is strained by more than two decades of drought, and its water levels are slipping dangerously low. In March, the reservoir passed an important threshold. Water levels dipped below 3,525 feet — the last major milestone before a serious threat to hydropower generation at the Glen Canyon Dam. The future of the reservoir is largely uncertain, but climate science and recent actions by the government are providing some hints as to what might happen in the near future…

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map April 16, 2022 via the NRCS.

Will water levels go back up?

In the short term, yes. In the long term, probably not. While levels are on a long downward trend, they fluctuate with the seasons. A large portion of the water in the Colorado River and Lake Powell comes from high-mountain snowmelt in Colorado and Wyoming. Because of that, the spring and early summer will bring a temporary boost to water levels while snow runs into rivers and eventually flows into Lake Powell. Mountain snowpack is generally below average for this time of year, so that boost may not be as big as it has been in years past.

Forecasts are calling for 4.1 million acre-feet of water to flow into Lake Powell from April to July this year, but water managers are obligated to release more than 7 million acre-feet out of the lake. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land to a height of one foot. One acre-foot generally provides enough water for one to two households for a year…

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck.

What is the long-term future of Lake Powell?

All signs point to a hotter, drier future for the Western U.S. The big question is how water managers will divvy up a shrinking supply to feed a growing region. Climate change is driving more than two decades of drought across the region, and making it increasingly unlikely that Lake Powell will ever climb back to previous levels.

Getches-Wilkinson Center: 42nd Annual #Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources, June 16 and June 17, 2022

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the announcement on the Getches-Wilkinson Center website:

Too Late: Hard Conversations About Really Complex Issues

Thursday, June 16 and Friday, June 17, 2022
Wolf Law Building, Wittemyer Courtroom

More information and registration coming soon!

Only painful decisions going forward on the river.

Photo from http://trmurf.com/about/

In #drought-stricken West, officials weigh emergency actions — The Associated Press #LakePowell #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A rare sight: Water shoots out of Glen Canyon Dam’s river outlets or “jet tubes” during a high-flow experimental release in 2013. Typically all of the dam’s outflows go through penstocks to turn the turbines on the hydroelectric plant. The outlets are only used during these experiments, meant to redistribute sediment downstream, and when lake levels get too high. Spillways are used as a last, last resort. The river outlets may be used again in the not so distant future: Once Lake Powell’s surface level drops below 3,490 feet, or minimum power pool, water can no longer be run through the turbines and can only be sent to the river below via the outlets. This is cause for concern because the river outlets were not built for long-term use. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on the Associated Press website (Felicia Fonseca). Here’s an excerpt:

Officials had hoped snowmelt would buoy Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border to ensure [Glen Canyon Dam] could continue to supply power. But snow is already melting, and hotter-than-normal temperatures and prolonged drought are further shrinking the lake. The Interior Department has proposed holding back water in the lake to maintain Glen Canyon Dam’s ability to generate electricity amid what it said were the driest conditions in the region in more than 1,200 years.

“The best available science indicates that the effects of climate change will continue to adversely impact the basin,” Tanya Trujillo, the Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science wrote to seven states in the basin [April 8, 2022].

These turbines at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam are at risk of becoming inoperable should levels at Powell fall below what’s known as minimum power pool due to declining flows in the Colorado River. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Trujillo asked for feedback on the proposal to keep 480,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell…In the Colorado River basin, Glen Canyon Dam is the mammoth of power production, delivering electricity to about 5 million customers in seven states — Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. As Lake Powell falls, the dam becomes less efficient. At 3,490 feet, it can’t produce power…

The Pacific Northwest, and the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and Texas are facing similar strains on water supplies…

Water managers in the basin states — Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado — are evaluating the proposal. The Interior Department has set an April 22 deadline for feedback.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map April 14, 2022 via the NRCS.

Reclamation weighs emergency action as #ColoradoRiver demand outpaces supply — The #Nevada Independent #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell, just upstream from Glen Canyon Dam. At the time of this photo, in May 2021, Lake Powell was 34% full. (Ted Wood/The Water Desk)

Click the link to read the article on the Nevada Independent website (Daniel Rothberg). Here’s an excerpt:

… Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are at historically low levels and operating in uncharted territory.The reservoirs, stocked with water that originates as snowpack, are not expected to refill soon. Forecasters predict a lackluster runoff, the amount of snow that melts away, drains into the river and eventually reaches the reservoirs. A hotter and drier climate has contributed to a smaller river — less supply. And water managers are struggling to figure out how to move forward, as some cuts and reductions have been made, but not enough to match the water that’s available.

At the same time, similar arid conditions are contributing to upward pressures on demand to use water. The states in the Lower Colorado River Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) depend on Lake Mead, held back by the Hoover Dam. In Arizona and California, agricultural districts are meeting or exceeding their expected water use due, in part, to a very hot and dry start to the year. And water users, including the large municipal purveyor that supplies Southern California, might have to draw on their reserve account at Lake Mead, further lowering the reservoir levels…

In a recent letter first reported by the Arizona Daily Star’s Tony Davis, federal water managers warned the states that they are considering an emergency action that could accelerate the decline of Lake Mead. They are proposing to keep more water in Lake Powell, which is held back by Glen Canyon Dam upstream. Lake Powell and Lake Mead work together in tandem. By keeping more water in Lake Powell, federal officials would release less water downstream to Lake Mead than expected. The move is intended to keep Lake Powell stable, providing a small window of relief to the system. But it comes with a cost: Such a move would lead to the further decline of Lake Mead, potentially making the risk of deeper, short-term water cuts more likely.

In addition to the action resulting in Lake Mead dropping roughly 7 feet lower, it could also have an impact on the hydroelectric power produced at Hoover Dam. In California alone, the cost of replacement power could be about $5 million, said Bill Hasencamp, the manager of Colorado River Resources for the Metropolitan Water District, which serves most of Southern California.

But he suggested the sacrifice was worth stabilizing Lake Powell, noting that “the proposal, based on the modeling I’ve seen, would significantly reduce the risk in the next 18 months.”

The Bureau of Reclamation had planned to release 7.48 million acre-feet from Lake Powell to Lake Mead…Under the proposed action, federal water managers contemplate leaving 480,000 acre-feet in Lake Powell…

In the letter, Tanya Trujillo, a top official with the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, asked the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to provide input on its proposed emergency action to keep more water in Lake Powell…

State officials are expected to comment on the federal emergency plan by April 22. Those comments are likely to focus, at least in part, on how the action would affect Lake Mead. Several water officials across the basin said that whatever action the federal government takes should not trigger a new series of cuts. Water reductions in Arizona, California and Nevada are based on the elevation of Lake Mead, in accordance with the basin’s Drought Contingency Plan.

“We want the outcome to be that there are no additional reductions because of holding back [the water],” said Tom Buschatzke, who leads the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

On that, there appears to be some agreement across the watershed, including within the Upper Colorado River Basin, which includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said “the discussion among the basin states currently, as we prepare a response back to the [Interior] Secretary, is to operate and account for the held back water in a way that avoids penalizing the Upper Basin or the Lower Basin. We’ll leave it to the [Interior] Secretary on how best to achieve that goal.” But the mechanics are still being worked out, and negotiators remain in active talks to reach a consensus decision. Although the Bureau of Reclamation’s action could temporarily halt Lake Powell’s drop for the next 18 months, it does not address the systemic issues at the center of the unfolding crisis…

The situation, Hasencamp said, underscores how tough the negotiations will be over the long-term management of the river.

“The hope is and the expectation is that we have enough agreements in place to get us through the next four years,” Hasencamp said. “The last few years have also shown us that the future risks that we were all kind of hearing about came a lot sooner — and are in our face.”

Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin Commissioner Mitchell Statement on US Dept of Interior Actions to Reduce Risk to #LakePowell Elevations and Critical Infrastructure — Colorado #Water Conservation Board #COriver #aridification

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck.

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Water Conservation Board website (Chris Arend):

The U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed a reduction in the annual release volume from Lake Powell from 7.48 to 7.0 million acre-feet for water year 2022. This is based on the Department’s determination that additional actions are needed to protect dam operations and hydropower production, and to address public health and safety concerns.

Below is a statement from Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell:

“Colorado understands the unprecedented challenges facing the Colorado River Basin and will work collaboratively to protect critical infrastructure at Lake Powell. While we support the Assistant Secretary’s proposal, we also acknowledge that this is a temporary solution and that it is incumbent on all who rely on the Colorado River to develop longer-term solutions that address the imbalance between supply and demand in the Basin.”

For more information see: http://www.ucrcommission.com/cooperative-actions-to-protect-lake-powell/

Reclamation’s letter to Tom Buschatzke describing potential 2022 releases (7.0 maf) from Glen Canyon Dam/#LakePowell #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Upper Colorado, Great, Virgin River Basins
April 2022 April-July forecast volumes as a percent of the 1991-2020 average (50% exceedance probability forecast)

Click the link to read the letter from Tonya Trujillo/Department of Interior GCD – 2022 Operations Letter – Buschatzke.

From the letter:

…we believe that additional actions are needed to reduce the risk of Lake Powell dropping to elevations at which Glen Canyon Dam releases could only be accomplished through the river outlet works (i.e. below elevation 3490′ mean sea level (msl)), or hydropower operations infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam would be adversely impacted…

… we have recently confirmed that essential drinking water infrastructure supplying the City of Page, Arizona and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation could not function…

In particular, in conjunction with any potential 2022 Drought Repsponse Operations Plan releases the Department respectfully requests your consideration of potentially reducing Glen Canyon Dam releases to 7.0 maf this water year and providing additional certainty regarding annual release volumes and tier determinations for the 2023 water year.

Tribes assert #water rights on #ColoradoRiver Basin: 1922 Colorado River Compact that divided resources between states left out Native Americans — The #Durango Herald #COriver #aridifcation

Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

Click the link to read the article on The Durango Herald website (Jim Mimiaga). Here’s an excerpt:

The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes of Southwest Colorado are fighting for water, including an effort to reclaim rights flowing downstream to other users. Ute Mountain Chairman Manuel Heart and Southern Ute Council member Lorelei Cloud presented their perspectives and plans for water management during a session of the Southwestern Water Conservation District’s annual meeting last week in Durango…

Native Americans did not gain U.S. citizenship until two years after the 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between upper and lower basins. Now, the 1922 compact is under review for water management changes in the mega-drought era and has a 2026 deadline for new interim guidelines. This time, tribes are asserting their water rights and demanding to be included in negotiations about how Colorado River Basin water is divided…

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

Thirty tribes within the Colorado River Basin hold 25% of the water rights, but some of the water has not been available for use or has not been recognized as tribe-owned.

“When the laws were made, we were not included; we were an afterthought. We know (tribes) have 25% or more of that water,” Cloud said. “If tribes were to put that water to use, it will be a major impact for those downstream who have been using it for free. As tribes put our water to use, there will be less water down river.”

Cloud said the Southern Ute Tribe has 129,000 acre-feet per year of federally reserved water rights on seven rivers that run through its reservation, but it only has the capacity to divert 40,600 acre-feet per year. The tribe stores water in Vallecito, Lemon and Lake Nighthorse reservoirs…

Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart said his tribe is also continuing its fight for water rights. He is chairman of the 10 Tribe Partnership, a coalition of tribes working to protect their water rights and provide input on Colorado River Basin water management.

Desert hydrology: Science Moab highlights talks with Eric Kuhn, Jack Schmidt, Brian Richter, and Arne Hultquist #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado River near Moab, Utah.

Click the link to read the article on the Moab Sun News website (Science Moab). Here’s an excerpt:

In the desert, few issues are as crucial as water. As a historic megadrought continues in the West, water usage is at the top of mind for many scientists. Hydrologists can help us understand how and when to enact new water policies. In this week’s column, Science Moab highlights important messages from conversations with hydrologists, speaking with Eric Kuhn, Jack Schmidt, Brian Richter, and Arne Hultquist.

Science Moab: Are we bound by water usage policies enacted years ago? If nature can’t sustain those, what then?

Eric Kuhn: One hundred years ago, we had some flexibility because the river was not very well-used. Today, not a drop of the Colorado River reaches the Gulf of California, so we don’t have that luxury. The way I look at it is: we legally allocated water based on an assumption that this river system had about 20 million acre-feet. Today, we think it’s more like 13, and it might be less in the future with climate change. Predictions and models show that increasing temperatures are going to reduce flows to the Colorado River. The drama is not how much water we’re going to have in the future — we know it’s going to be less. The drama is how we’re going to decide who gets less water, and when…

These turbines at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam are at risk of becoming inoperable should levels at Powell fall below what’s known as minimum power pool due to declining flows in the Colorado River. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Science Moab: At the start of 2021, Lake Powell was at 41% of its capacity. Why should we be so concerned that Lake Powell levels continue to fall to all-time lows?

Brian Richter: Lake Powell serves three really important benefits. One is that it generates hydropower from the Glen Canyon Dam, which provides electricity throughout the southwestern United States. Two, Lake Powell is important for tourism, which is impacted by falling water levels. But by far the biggest concern is that if Lake Powell drops by another 85 feet — and for reference, the lake level dropped by more than 30 feet in 2020 — then the lake will drop below the hydropower outlets, so all the electricity production out of Glen Canyon Dam will stop. But even worse is that it will become physically impossible to move enough water into the Lower Basin states to provide for their water needs.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

University of #Denver Water Law Review Symposium, April 14-15, 2022: 100 Years of the #ColoradoRiver Compact: Flowing into a New Era #COriver #aridification

Colorado River headwaters tributary in Rocky Mountain National Park photo via Greg Hobbs.

Click the link to register for the symposium.

Here’s the release:

The University of Denver Sturm College of Law is home to the Water Law Review, the premier water law journal in the nation. This year, the annual Water Law Review symposium will celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Colorado River Compact, a document designed to guide seven western states and Mexico in allocating and sharing water from the river.

Water is a precious resource, and the Colorado River is becoming more important than ever before due to climate change and growth of western cities putting pressure on an over-allocated resource. To learn from history, the symposium will first discuss what went into drafting the Compact 100 years ago. As a foundation for panel discussions, we will have a hydrology report to learn the state of the river and the status of this precious resource. Colorado River professionals will then come together from each of the basin states, Mexico, and the Tribes to discuss how the Compact has affected each of their communities, and how we can continue to work together to share a diminishing resource.

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

We have created a unique opportunity to hear perspectives from such distinguished speakers, including our keynote speaker: Tanya Trujillo, the Assistance Secretary for Water and Science at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Our panel speakers include:

▪ William Philpott, Associate Professor of History, University of Denver
▪ Michelle Garrison, Senior Water Resource Specialist, Colorado Water Conservation Board
▪ Terry Goddard, Attorney, President of the Central Arizona Project, Former Arizona Attorney General
▪ Peter Fleming, General Counsel, Colorado River District
▪ Daniel Galindo, Deputy Director of the Colorado River Mexican Section of the International Boundary
Water Commission
▪ Peter Ortego, General Counsel for Ute Mountain Ute
▪ Puoy Premsrirut, Attorney, Chairwoman of the Colorado River Commission of Nevada
▪ Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, Director, New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission
▪ Gene Shawcroft, Utah Colorado River Commissioner
▪ Chris Brown, Wyoming Senior Assistant Attorney General
▪ Philip Womble, Fellow, Stanford Law School; Postdoctoral Fellow, Woods Institute for the
Environment, Stanford University
▪ James Eklund, Founder of Eklund Hanlon, LLC, Former director of the Colorado Water Conservation
Board, Former Colorado River Commissioner for Colorado
▪ Amy Ostdiek, Section Chief of Interstate, Federal, and Water Information Section, Colorado Water
Conservation Board
▪ Celene Hawkins, Colorado and Colorado River Tribal Engagement Program Director
▪ Christopher Harris, Executive Director, Colorado River Board of California

The event is April 14th and 15th at the University of Denver. All Pertinent details can be found on our website. Registration ends midnight on Sunday April 10th.

For any questions, please reach out to Andie Hall at ahall22@law.du.edu or Andrea Thomas at athomas24@law.du.edu.

Now, it’s spillway time! — @Land_Desk #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A rare sight: Water shoots out of Glen Canyon Dam’s river outlets or “jet tubes” during a high-flow experimental release in 2013. Typically all of the dam’s outflows go through penstocks to turn the turbines on the hydroelectric plant. The outlets are only used during these experiments, meant to redistribute sediment downstream, and when lake levels get too high. Spillways are used as a last, last resort. The river outlets may be used again in the not so distant future: Once Lake Powell’s surface level drops below 3,490 feet, or minimum power pool, water can no longer be run through the turbines and can only be sent to the river below via the outlets. This is cause for concern because the river outlets were not built for long-term use. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

If you read my impressions from a visit to Hoover Dam, you’ll remember that I ended it with these sentences describing the spillway at the dam (not the dam, itself): “It’s beautiful in the way functional structures can be. And yet, it no longer serves any real function—and never will—except, perhaps, as a reminder of what was.”

When the venerable LA Times environment reporter Sammy Roth tweeted out the description, this was one of the responses:

Okay, well, I’m not sure how it’s “arrogant” to say that a spillway will never be used again, but a subsequent Twitter discussion fleshed out the bigger point he was trying to make: Just as climate change can exacerbate drought, warming can also trigger extremely abundant precipitation, leading to catastrophic flooding a la 1983, which could fill up the reservoirs again and put the spillways back into use. Others piped in, as well, pointing to Lake Oroville in California, which went from nearly empty to overflowing and back to empty over the course of several years.

It got me thinking that maybe I had been too rash in asserting the spillways would never be needed again. After all, anything’s possible: We know that the 1911 Flood sent around 300,000 cubic feet per second or more past the current Glen Canyon Dam site (compared to the 1983 flows of 120,000 cfs), and paleoflood investigations suggest deluges in the distant past have topped out above 600,000 cfs—a Biblical sort of event.

Could a climate change-induced megaflood of this magnitude reverse the effects of a climate change-induced megadrought and fill Powell and Mead back to the brim?

It seems unlikely.

The issue here is one of scale. Lake Powell and Lake Mead are both gargantuan in size. Powell is 186 miles long when full with over 1,900 miles of coastline. It can store nearly 27 million acre feet (af) of water (minus a million or two due to siltation). Contrast that to Lake Oroville, with its relatively minuscule 3.5 million acre feet of capacity.

Powell currently has less than 6 million acre feet in it, leaving 20 million acre feet of empty storage that needs to be filled before water would reach the spillways. Lake Mead’s numbers are similarly huge.

Now, the monster flood of 650,000 cfs would dump 1.3 million acre feet of water per day into the reservoir. So, you’d need two weeks of this to fill up Powell—and Lake Mead would still have 20 million acre feet of unused capacity, meaning you’d need another two weeks of deluge to fill it up. Megafloods usually don’t last that long—the 1911 Flood brought up river levels for several days, not weeks (and Colorado river flows for the entire year were unremarkable). And besides, 650,000 cfs isn’t going to sneak up on the dam operators. They’d see it coming and start releasing water from the reservoirs ahead of time, obviating the need to use the spillways.

Conclusion: A sudden megaflood is not going to cause either Mead or Powell—and certainly not both of them—to overflow.

But what about a string of really wet years, when record-setting snowfall is followed by torrential summer rains? We know this is possible, because it’s exactly what happened in 1983 through 1986, the last time the spillways were used. We also know, from streamflow reconstructions back to the 8th Century, that the wet and wild 1980s were not entirely unprecedented. They were, however, an anomaly, and they are among the wettest four consecutive years on record.

So, let’s assume a repeat. Would that fill the dams to overflowing and put the spillways back to use? Perhaps.

Here are the numbers as of March 30:

  • Lake Powell Current storage: 5.8 million acre feet (MAF)
  • Full capacity: 27 MAF
  • Minimum annual release: 8.23 MAF
  • Annual evaporation: .4 MAF
  • Lake Mead current: 8.6 MAF
  • Full capacity: 28.2 MAF
  • Minimum annual release: 9.6 MAF
  • Annual evaporation: .6 MAF
  • Las Vegas withdrawal: .3 MAF
  • These were the actual inflows into Lake Powell during the super soaker years from 1983-1986, also known as the only time the spillways at Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams were actually used. It didn’t go so well, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

  • 1983: 20 MAF
  • 1984: 21.6 MAF
  • 1985: 18.2 MAF
  • 1986: 18.4 MAF
  • To put this in context, consider inflows during the four biggest water years of the last two decades:

  • 2011: 16.3 MAF
  • 2008: 12.4 MAF
  • 2019: 11.7 MAF
  • 2005: 11.4 MAF
  • And, just to give you an idea of the dismal state of the Colorado River currently:

  • 2021: 4.03 MAF
  • 1983, the last time the spillways at Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams were used, was a remarkable year in many ways. The winter started out above average in terms of snowfall, but not wildly so. Then, in March, it started dumping and didn’t stop until the end of May (snowpack peaked on May 20, more than a month later than normal). The temperature shot up rapidly followed by heavy June rains. Glen Canyon’s operators weren’t expecting the deluge and failed to leave enough room in Lake Powell to accommodate it. Source: NRCS and USBR.

    Glen Canyon Dam operators are required to send at least 8.23 MAF downstream to Lake Mead each year, but usually only go above that when Powell gets close to full and “equalization” kicks in—it’s basically a “fill Powell first” philosophy. The following Glen Canyon release numbers are guesses based on that. Of course, once Lake Powell is full, then releases would equal inflows.

    The equation, then, is:

    Begin Water Year Storage + Inflows – (evaporation+withdrawals) = End WY Storage

    So, at the end of the nearly unprecedented string of wet years, Lake Powell would be full but Lake Mead still would need another 6 million acre feet of water before the spillways could be used.

    Let’s just say I’m feeling better about my spillway “never again” comment.

    There is another possible scenario: Four years of giant snow/water years followed by the monster megaflood—the double whammy. That certainly would fill up both Powell and Mead and could lead to a 1983 situation all over again, or worse.

    But that doesn’t necessarily mean the spillways would be utilized again. In fact, dam operators will do everything they can to avoid it because they really aren’t intended to be used. In 1983 it wasn’t the big water that forced the spillways into use, it was the dam operators’ failure to prepare for the sudden runoff by releasing enough water beforehand. And that stemmed from faulty weather forecasting.

    When the runoff did hit the already full reservoir, it caused the water to spill into the spillways, which are actually tunnels through the cliffs on either side of the dam. A phenomenon called cavitation occurred, in which vapor bubbles in the water collapse, sending shockwaves through the tunnels. That tore huge gouges into the concrete lining and then the rock, which in turn threatened the dam, itself. Plywood extenders were added to the top of Glen Canyon Dam’s spillway gates to stop the water from entering them.

    So, even in the extraordinarily unlikely event of a double whammy 1983 water year + a megaflood, dam operators will be ready for it. So, I’m standing by my assertion as rash as it may be: The spillways on both Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams are obsolete, except maybe as extreme skateboarding chutes.

    In kinda related news, the federal Energy Information Administration published figures on the effects of last year’s drought on hydropower generation. As expected it was kind of grim, with California facilities only producing about half of what they normally would.

    But it’s okay, right? I mean that was last year and now the drought’s over, so … Huh? What’s that? Oh. Oh, dear. This just in: Snowpack levels in the Sierras are between 30 percent and 44 percent of average for this date. Unless the storms come quick and bountiful, it’s going to be another year of diminished hydropower in the Golden State. Not good.

    We promised we’d be doing various Colorado River Compact-related coverage this year, so here are a couple pretty fascinating tidbits I found in a 1916 USGS paper on the Colorado River. On the left are population figures for major towns and cities in the Colorado Basin and for the portion of states lying within the Basin. On the right are annual streamflows for the Colorado River above its confluence with the Gila. Turns out the average for that time period was a bit higher than the historic mean, leading Compact negotiators to parcel out more water than actually existed in the river. Whoops!

    Population and streamflow at the time the Colorado River Compact was being negotiated. Credit: The Land Desk

    #LakePowell continues to disappear as #Colorado hits pause on plan to prop up levels — The Salt Lake Tribune #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Lake Powell boat ramp at Page, Arizona, December 17, 2021. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

    Click the link to read the article on the Salt Lake Tribune website (Zak Podmore). Here’s an excerpt:

    The reservoir could drop below the level needed to generate power at the Glen Canyon Dam this year if other ways of increasing the elevation of the lake aren’t used

    …water managers in Colorado announced last week that they will stop exploring one proposal to prop up the rapidly depleting levels in Lake Powell. The plan — known as demand management — would compensate farmers and ranchers for voluntarily stopping irrigation on a temporary basis, sending water that would have been used for agriculture to the reservoir. A drought contingency plan developed in 2019 by Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming identified demand management as one method that could be used to keep the water level in Lake Powell above 3,525 feet in elevation, around a quarter of its capacity, in order to protect electricity generation. The four-state demand management proposal was met with suspicion by agricultural interests, according to Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Law School who previously worked on Colorado River issues under the Obama administration. Skeptics of the plan feared it could “wipe out irrigated agriculture” in parts of the river basin and fundamentally alter rural economies, Castle said at a recent University of Utah symposium hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center. She said those fears were “not unfounded” and “they would have to be dealt with in an equitable demand management program.”

    […]

    Utah still supports a four-state demand management program, said Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, but it is also prepared to move forward with water conservation pilot projects and potentially pursue a smaller-scale demand management program on its own. She pointed to Utah’s investments in water measuring infrastructure, studies looking at switching to crops that require less water and other programs…

    The Bureau of Reclamation recently announced that it is studying modifications to the Glen Canyon Dam that would allow for power generation at lower water levels. That could include installing turbines on bypass tubes that are located below the current hydropower intakes…

    But Brad Udall said finding the political will and leadership at federal and state levels to permanently reduce demand is difficult.

    “My biggest fear,” Udall said, “is that it’s easier to let the system crash than it is to find the painful solutions that are needed.”

    He defined a system crash as letting the two largest reservoirs in the U.S. — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — empty because of an inability to respond to declining flows. Udall added there have been incremental, positive solutions implemented in the basin over the last two decades, but he said future solutions have to be “more than incremental” to deal with the crisis.

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
    @GreatLakesPeck.

    #Arizona’s Future #Water Shock: Smaller cities. Soaring water prices. Scorched desert towns — Circle of Blue

    Arizona monsoon cloud with lightning striking the beautiful Sonoran desert in North Scottsdale. Photo by James Bo Insogna. Title: Arizona Monsoon Thunderstorm. Taken on August 15, 2016. Used under a Creative Commons license.

    Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website (Keith Schneider). Here’s an excerpt:

    What’s happening in the million-dollar homes of Rio Verde Foothills, one of the Phoenix metropolitan region’s choice places to live, is a future shock “buyer beware” scenario certain to be replicated over the next several decades in many other Arizona communities contending with urgent water constraints.

    Bridges across the Tempe Town Lake on the Salt River in Tempe, Arizona. Tempe Beach Park in the foreground, and the building with HOPE on it at 350 W Washington St across the river. By Dicklyon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65090199

    Another View

    About 50 miles south, another scenario of 21st century Arizona is taking shape. The nearly 23,000-member Gila River Indian Community is modernizing: adding to its group of casinos, preparing to expand its irrigated farm acres, and elevating its influence in Arizona’s politics and economy. It’s doing so by virtue of one of the most secure and abundant water supplies in Arizona and the entire Southwest.

    Following decades of brutal discrimination and abuse by white settlers and state authorities during which the two Gila River tribes’ rights to their historic water supply were not honored, Congress approved an agreement between the United States and the State of Arizona that essentially guarantees tribal access to 653,500 acre-feet of water per year…

    …from previous statements by tribal leaders and in interviews with state water authorities, it is clear that the Gila River Indian Community, or GRIC, is using its abundant water to build a new age of wealth and influence on the 372,000-acre reservation south of Phoenix. GRIC is constructing a federally-financed irrigation network to increase farming operations to 75,000 ancestral acres from the current 35,000. It negotiated lucrative agreements to lease water to Phoenix, Chandler, and other communities. It is also marketing water that it stores in aquifers to willing suburbs and subdivision builders interested in long-term leases.

    Since 2016, GRIC has played a central role in storing over 370,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead, plus 130,000 more acre-feet this year to keep lake levels high enough to prevent a water shortage declaration more dire than the one the federal government issued last August. GRIC received $274 per acre-foot from the state and federal governments. In short, ample and secure water supply is the basis of the community’s plan to rebuild the vitality of its 8,000 year-old desert civilization that was ruined in the 20th century…

    Arizona’s Future Water Shock

    The water-abundant and thriving Gila River Indian Community amounts to one bookend scenario of Arizona’s 21st century condition. The other bookend is the arid Rio Verde Foothills, where government decisions and meteorological disruptions trap residents in a water-related crisis that heat and drought aggravated, and state law did not anticipate.

    In 1980, Arizona enacted an innovative groundwater management program intended to ensure adequate reserves of water for rapid home development and expansive population growth by designating four regions from Prescott to Tucson as Active Management Areas. (Santa Cruz, the fifth AMA, was carved out from the Tucson AMA in 1994.) The program included two important exemptions, however: its provisions did not apply to groundwater withdrawals outside of the AMAs. And within the AMA boundaries, owners of private wells that pumped less than 35 gallons per minute — in other words, many of the wells drilled for the state’s exploding residential real estate markets — did not come under state oversight.

    In 1995, the law set in place a consumer protection measure to require developers building subdivisions in AMAs with six or more homes to assure buyers that their houses had a 100-year supply of water. But the requirement did not apply for residential construction projects with less than six homes. Builders constructing individual homes, or clusters of five homes or less in an AMA, avoided the 100-year water requirement. Outside the AMAs, groundwater safeguards did not apply, creating what amounted to a home construction free-for-all.

    Little more than 40 years after the statute was enacted and less than 30 years after the 100-year assured water supply rules were adopted, the subdivision and private well waivers have resulted in Rio Verde’s emergency. They also influenced a boom in home construction that has caused — and continues to cause — thousands of wells to fail inside and outside of AMAs. It is clearer by the day that, without significant strengthening, the state’s water management program is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The emergence of serious instances of water shortage from Kingman in the north, to the Chino Valley north of Prescott, to Cochise County in Arizona’s southeast has prompted civic campaigns for reform. They have yet to attract sufficient legislative support.

    That seems certain to change. And soon, because of climate change.

    Ranking and time evolution of summer (June–August) drought severity as indicated by negative 0–200 cm soil moisture anomalies. Maps show how gridded summer drought severity in each year from 2000–2021 ranked among all years 1901–2021, where low (brown) means low soil moisture and therefore high drought severity. Yellow boxes bound the southwestern North America (SWNA) study region. Time series shows standardized anomalies (σ) of the SWNA regionally averaged soil moisture record relative to a 1950–1999 baseline. Black time series shows annual values and the red time series shows the 22-year running mean, with values displayed on the final year of each 22-year window. Geographic boundaries in maps were accessed through Matlab 2020a.

    This year alone, the latest scientifically respected studies reveal a number of disconcerting findings. The megadrought that has Arizona in its tightening grip is the worst in 1200 years. Climate change is responsible for at least 40 percent of the decline in Colorado River water supplies. And the Southwest, like other desert regions, is getting steadily hotter, drier, and more dangerous. Though future weather conditions are always difficult to accurately predict, a worst-case scenario for Arizona looks like this: Population growth stops. Residents start to migrate in droves away from the stifling hot and dry state. Home values collapse. The state enters an era of relentless decline. By 2060, according to several published projections, extreme heat and water scarcity could make Phoenix one of the continent’s most uninhabitable places.

    It’s not much of a reach to conclude that Arizona is at the intersection of two paths to the future. By mid-century it will be a model of desert dwelling resiliency. Or it will be a weakened civilization that is starting to waste away…

    Taken as a whole, the data mean that Arizona’s share of the Colorado River will likely shrink to less than half the current 2.8 million acre-feet allotment. Arizona will rely much more heavily on its finite groundwater reserves to support population growth, residential construction, and new business starts that state officials continue to encourage. And though Arizona has stored over 13 million acre-feet of water underground to supplement supply during years of water shortage, never since statehood in 1912 has Arizona encountered such a long and deep period of water scarcity that science predicts will grow steadily more severe…

    This year, the governor proposed establishing a new state agency, the Arizona Water Authority, to pursue new supplies and also asked the Legislature for $1 billion more, framing the request around the need to build a desalination plant, perhaps in Mexican waters, to produce 250,000 acre-feet a year.

    Other ideas for securing Arizona’s water supply — regulating groundwater use in rural areas, metering private water wells, increasing use of recycled wastewater, restricting natural grass lawns, and imposing land use and urban design requirements to collect and store stormwater — haven’t reached nearly the same level of clarity and legislative purpose.

    There’s a reason for that. Regulatory changes in water policy and practice are some of the steepest cliffs in Arizona’s political landscape. Any proposal judged by lawmakers to challenge property rights, raise costs, and impede growth is dead on arrival in the Legislature. Such proposals generate powerful winds of opposition in the executive offices of home builders, chambers of commerce, and every other economic development agency.

    The Colorado River’s confounding math problem — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

    Nook on Lake Powell. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

    Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

    Spring runoff last year in the Colorado River Basin was a bust, with snowpack of almost 90% of average reduced to a 30% inflow at Lake Powell.

    Nobody yet predicts another bust this year. Maybe a meteorological March madness will compensate for last year. While we wait, water managers talk about “the math problem.”

    The gap between water flows and demands in the Colorado River is enormous and likely to widen. The dysfunctional equation begins with 20 million acre-feet, the average annual flows assumed by the Colorado River Compact that was crafted 100 years ago by delegates from the seven basin states.

    Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS via Environment360

    This cheerful assumption was based on early 20th century flows. It was made with almost willful disregard of evidence available even then of the river’s lesser flows during the prior half-century. The delegates who met at a lodge near Santa Fe in 1922 were determined to yoke all irrigable acres into agricultural production.

    In this math problem, another key number is 12.3 million acre-feet. That’s been the river’s average flow in the 21st century. Some of this reduced flow seems to be entirely natural, what we call drought, if exceptional in duration.

    Something else has been going on. Temperatures have risen 3 degrees C altogether since 1970. By some estimates, half or more of the reduced flows can be attributed to this global warming effect. This warming explains the grand larceny in the Colorado River, decent snowpacks reduced to a shrug in the Utah desert because of evaporation but also because plants need more water. Too, baked soil sops up water.

    We can’t flip the switch on global warming, and it’s almost certain to worsen, the temperature rise doubling or tripling, as Colorado State University’s Brad Udall warns. He describes what is occurring as aridification. Unlike drought, it’s not temporary.

    This brings us to another number for this Colorado River Basin math problem: 11 million acre-feet.

    That’s the number cited last week at a University of Utah conference about future flows of the Colorado River. “The best climate scientists in the world say we will be lucky to have 11 million acre-feet,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency serving Las Vegas.

    To recap this math problem, the Colorado River Compact assumed 20 million-acre feet, the reality has been 12.3 in the last two decades, and we’ll end up with 11 million-acre feet—or conceivably less.

    “Every new use will have to be mitigated by someone, somewhere, using less water,” Entsminger added.

    That’s not entirely right either. We all will have to use less water. Keep in mind that not one drop of the Colorado River gets to the Sea of Cortez.

    Cinching of the water belt has been underway from Mexico to Colorado. It’s not happening as rapidly as needed, though. Consider the rapidly emerging walls of Glen Canyon and the dam that creates Lake Powell. Despite emergency releases from upstream reservoirs in Colorado and Utah last summer to bolster Powell, the water levels last week dipped below 3,525 feet.

    Lake Powell storage in acre-feet. 1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons. USBR.

    That elevation is arbitrary but a loud warning that a further decline of 35 feet leaves Glen Canyon unable to generate electricity. Recent modeling by the U.S. Geological Survey shows a 25% risk. If —or perhaps when—that happens, municipalities and cooperative members who get power from Glen Canyon will still get electricity from elsewhere, but it will cost more. That includes Holy Cross Electric.

    Long term, this worsening situation of subpar runoff in the Colorado River matters to well more than 90% of Colorado’s population. The Colorado River and its tributaries deliver half of Front Range water. Even the easterly flowing rivers in Colorado that pass through more distant, less citified places, Sterling and La Junta, carry water augmented by diversions from the Colorado River.

    Much remains to be worked out. Within Colorado, agriculture uses 80% to 90% of all water. Farmers and ranchers who own the more senior water rights, not subject to compact limitations, have served emphatic notice that their water will not be the answer to the math problem.

    Lees Ferry streamgage and cableway downstream on the Colorado River, Arizona. (Public domain.)

    Another problem is the compact clause that puts the upper basin states—Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming—on the hook for diminished flows. It says they “will not cause” the flows at Lee Ferry, just below Glen Canyon, to be depleted below 75 million acre-feet of water over a rolling 10-year average. The upper basin states cannot do this alone. The risk must be shared.

    This sounds gloomy. That said, the seven basin states, Mexico, and the sovereign tribes who collectively own about 20% the basin’s water have yet to throw rocks at each other. They are talking. They just haven’t solved this math problem.

    How low can the #ColoradoRiver go? #Drought forces states to face tough choices about #water — The #Arizona Republic #COriver #aridification

    Click the link to read the article on the Arizona Republic website (Brandon Loomis). Here’s an excerpt:

    Water managers from across the Colorado River Basin are preparing to negotiate new rules for allocating the river’s dwindling flow and sharing the pain of a deepening shortage. They’re adapting the 100-year-old Colorado River Compact to a river that little resembles the bountiful gusher that negotiators from seven states and the federal government in 1922 thought — or hoped — would bless the Southwest forever. The stakes rise with every foot that Lake Mead and Lake Powell fall, as the states and the water users within them recognize they’re due for a tighter squeeze.

    Las Vegas Lake Mead intake schematic, courtesy SNWA.

    Arizona gets more than a third of its water from the river, growing abundant crops around Yuma and homes around Phoenix and Tucson. The Las Vegas area gets most of its water from the river and has built a deeper pipe in Lake Mead to assure its continued access. Late-developing states like Wyoming use water for ranching and energy development, and are hoping to continue growing on it…

    Re-thinking the river’s flow

    Before the states, Indigenous communities and water districts can agree on a new plan to more conservatively divvy the water, they’ll need to agree on how low the river might go…

    The 2022 negotiators are debating whether they should plan for just 11 million acre-feet, as Entsminger’s Nevada agency already has penciled into its water security plans…

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
    @GreatLakesPeck.

    Since 2000, the river has delivered on average 12.3 million acre-feet a year, which is generally a couple of million less than the region has used. Consequently, the giant reservoirs that were full back then have tanked, Lake Mead to about a third of capacity, Lake Powell to a quarter…Planning for a regular supply of just 11 million acre-feet would obliterate long-held assumptions about how much water some or all of the users thought they were entitled for future growth. Contingencies for that level could severely limit growth potential in the Upper Basin, where Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah are far from fully developing their collective 7.5 million acre-foot share outlined by the compact…

    Climate scientists who study and project the Colorado’s flows as the region warms believe even 11 million acre-feet could be wishful thinking. Some studies suggest heat’s toll on the water supply will drop the river to just 9 million acre-feet in coming decades, said Brad Udall, a Colorado State University researcher who has focused on the river for 20 years. “I could live with 11” as a planning guideline, even if it’s optimistic, Udall said. That projection is stark enough to require bold action that water managers could later build upon. It would follow the trajectory that scientists like Udall say represents the region’s heat-induced aridification, as opposed to temporary drought.

    55% of Coloradans fear state won’t have enough #water in 100 years, poll shows — #Colorado Newsline

    Ranking and time evolution of summer (June–August) drought severity as indicated by negative 0–200 cm soil moisture anomalies. Maps show how gridded summer drought severity in each year from 2000–2021 ranked among all years 1901–2021, where low (brown) means low soil moisture and therefore high drought severity. Yellow boxes bound the southwestern North America (SWNA) study region. Time series shows standardized anomalies (σ) of the SWNA regionally averaged soil moisture record relative to a 1950–1999 baseline. Black time series shows annual values and the red time series shows the 22-year running mean, with values displayed on the final year of each 22-year window. Geographic boundaries in maps were accessed through Matlab 2020a.

    A majority of Coloradans believe the state will face significant water shortages within the next century, a poll released Monday found.

    Conducted earlier this month by Morning Consult on behalf of the Walton Family Foundation, the poll surveyed about 300 registered voters in Colorado, among 2,000 respondents nationally. It found that Coloradans are more concerned on average about the threat of climate change than voters nationwide, with 57% agreeing that rising global temperatures are “having a massive impact on my community,” and 55% worrying that the state won’t “have enough water to meet its needs in 100 years.”

    “It’s shocking that more than half of the residents in Colorado don’t think there will be enough water in their home state for their grandchildren to live out their lives,” Moira Mcdonald, environment program director for the Walton Family Foundation, said in a statement. “The Colorado River Basin is living through a historic drought fueled by climate change, and this poll shows there is urgency and unity among all voters to meet these challenges head-on. This is a time for bold leadership.”

    GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

    The poll’s release comes a week after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that Lake Powell, a key Colorado River reservoir along the Utah-Arizona border, dropped to its lowest level since it was filled in 1980. Years of declining flows have led to a complex series of negotiations over usage rights and management strategies between the seven states that rely on the Colorado River, collectively supplying water to over 40 million people.

    A study released earlier this year concluded that the “megadrought” that has gripped the basin since 2000 is the worst dry spell the region has experienced in at least 1,200 years, and nearly half of the drought’s severity is due to higher temperatures driven by human-caused climate change. Rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have caused parts of Colorado — especially areas on the Western Slope — to warm by an annual average of 4 degrees Fahrenheit or more above pre-1900 levels, temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show.

    The Walton Family Foundation’s poll found that 65% of Colorado voters believe that governments “need stricter regulations in place to limit the impacts of climate change,” a position shared by 67% of voters nationwide. Plans for significant climate legislation by Democrats in Congress, however, remain stalled amid opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

    The poll was released ahead of World Water Day, a U.N. event observed annually on March 22. The Walton Family Foundation, launched by heirs of Walmart founder Sam Walton, has donated tens of millions of dollars to nonprofits promoting water conservation in the Colorado River Basin in recent years.

    SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

    Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

    Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

    Conference Talk Summaries: ‘The #ColoradoRiver Compact – Navigating the Future’ (@CUBoulderGWC) — @WaterWired #COriver #aridification

    Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Click the link to read the report on the Water Wired website (Michael Campana):

    Last week on 17 – 18 March 2022 a two-day conference on ‘The Colorado River Compact – Navigating the Future’ was held at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law in Salt Lake City…

    This year marks 100 years since the Compact was signed in November 1922.

    The Colorado River Compact divided the basin into an upper and lower half, with each having the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre-feet of river water annually. (Source: U.S. Geological Survey via The Water Education Foundation)

    Day 1 – 17 March 2022

    From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

    Speaker 1: Jason Robinson, University of Wyoming College of Law
    An introduction relating how all of us are sitting here in this room 100 years after the Colorado River Compact was written. Look at how ideas have changed There are 30 indigenous tribes within the Colorado River Basin, many with water rights unrecognized. The first ever shortage officially declared on the Colorado river was in summer of 2021, but there has been a supply and demand imbalance since the very beginning. Jason finished his short speech with the comment “For culture is the soil which law and policy grow.”

    Signing ceremony for the Colorado River upper and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans. Back Row Left to Right: James Eklund (CO), John D’Antonio (NM), Pat Tyrell (WY), Eric Melis (UT), Tom Buschatzke (AZ), Peter Nelson (CA), John Entsminger (NV), Front Row: Brenda Burman (US), and from DOI – Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Tim Petty. Photo credit: Colorado River Water Users Association

    Speaker 2: Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of Interior.
    Progress made regarding the Colorado River is slow, but it progresses, nonetheless. The Department of Interior is trying to work quickly to rebuild and protect the system of the Colorado River. Part of the 2022 drought response operations is protecting the Lake Powell elevation at 3525 feet. This is the chosen elevation to protect due to hydropower generation and the location of downstream bypass tubes. In the past the “law of hydrology” has been ignored, but this time around the science of hydrology is being considered. Mexico and indigenous populations are being included within the conversation.

    September 21, 1923, 9:00 a.m. — Colorado River at Lees Ferry. From right bank on line with Klohr’s house and gage house. Old “Dugway” or inclined gage shows to left of gage house. Gage height 11.05′, discharge 27,000 cfs. Lens 16, time =1/25, camera supported. Photo by G.C. Stevens of the USGS.
    Source: 1921-1937 Surface Water Records File, Colorado R. @ Lees Ferry, Laguna Niguel Federal Records Center, Accession No. 57-78-0006, Box 2 of 2 , Location No. MB053635.

    Speaker 3: Larry MacDonnell, University of Colorado Law School
    In 1922 when the Colorado River was divvied up there was 17.3 MAF annually flow out of Yuma to Mexico. It was decided that with storage there could be 13.93 MAF/yr of water used for irrigation within the basin. The storage of this water uses dams to control flooding, store water, and create hydropower. Four critical elements decided on by Delph E. Carpenter about the Colorado River Compact are: 1) Dividing the basin into two parts, the upper and lower; 2) “Equal” division of all systems as measured in Yuma; 3) Flow guarantee at Lee’s Ferry over a 10 consecutive year period; and 4) Mexico’s needs for the water must also be considered.

    Minute 323 environmental section signing. Photo credit: Colorado River Water Users Association

    Speaker 4: Anne Castle, University of Colorado Law School
    Anne shared a history over time of the Colorado River Compact and the changes that have been made to it since 1922. In 1928 there was the addition of the Boulder Canyon Project where the lower basin states entered an interstate agreement for allocation. In 1944 Mexico was added to the treaty receiving 1.5 MAF annually. In 1948 the upper basin states created allocation by percentages, not fixed volumes and established the Upper Colorado River Commission naming a commissioner from every state. This also included the penalty box provision where a framework was created to curtail states for using more water than they were allocated. 1952 contained a conflict between Arizona and California about who gets the extra 1 MAF, what beneficial use is, and how we account for evaporation. SCOTUS made a decision in 1963 but only reinterpreted the Boulder Canyon Project Act which only accounts for water in the mainstem of the river and not the tributaries. In 1968 the Colorado River Basin Project Act set long range operation criteria for reservoirs. The 21st century contained the worst megadrought this area has experienced in the last 1200 years which affects the whole system. In 2007 Interim guidelines were set for the sharing of shortage/surplus of water as well as water banks and lake contents. These guidelines are set to expire in 2025 and contained reductions to Arizona and Nevada’s delivery. In 2012 the historic binational agreement Minute 319 was with Mexico to create more environmental efforts and allow Mexico to store water in US reservoirs. In 2017 Minute 323 was passed as a renewal of Minute 319 but included a drought contingency plan that expires in 2026. Current efforts are focused on the 500+ Plan which is a commitment to conserve 500,000 acre-feet/year. Demand management is being investigated on a state-by-state basis.

    North American Indian regional losses 1850 thru 1890.

    Speaker 5: Margaret Vick, Colorado River Indian Tribes
    Margaret shared a timeline of what was happening in indigenous communities pre and post Colorado River Compact as well as what obligations the U.S. has to Tribal communities. The Homestead Act of opening “public lands” to settlement coincided with the removal of tribes from their native lands. During the 1900s lands not allotted as “reservations” were divided and sold, the reservation land went from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million in 1934. In 1934 the Indian Reorganization Act which “recognized” tribes if they adopted constitutions that were respected by the federal government. The time of assimilation also occurred during this time which included the removal of children and the banning of native language and culture. During this termination era more than 100 tribes lost their land and benefits. Tribes formed the NCAI and other organizations to oppose termination, but it ended with the enactment of Civil Rights 1968. Currently there are 16 tribes with existing federal irrigation projects, but the US “owns” 25-30% of water in the basin on behalf of tribes.

    The difference between the terms equality equity and liberation illustrated. Credit: Shrehan Lynch https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340777978_The_A-Z_of_Social_Justice_Physical_Education_Part_1

    Speaker 6: Bidtah Becker (Navajo Nation), California EPA, Environmental Justice, and Border Affairs
    California has created a truth and reconciliation council for the impacts the United States has had on Tribal communities. The federal government must be a leader in helping tribes determine on what they should focus their energies on. She ended her remarks with a quote that “We live in an equity moment and could be an equity historical period.”

    All American Canal Construction circa. 1938 via the Imperial Irrigation District

    Speaker 7: Carlos de la Parra, Restauremos el Colorado
    The Colorado River Basin includes Mexico, but they were not added onto the Colorado Compact until a later time, Mexico got 10% of water from the Colorado River because World War II and good neighbor policy as well as the fact that Mexico has oil that the US wanted. Also in Mexico water is a property of the nation. The All-American Canal is still an unresolved dispute with Mexico because it stopped seepage into the wetlands at the base of the Colorado River, this caused Mexico the environmental impact of this canal. We are currently in a “hot drought” which decouples surface temperatures and precipitation. This creates variation in water quality and delivery. The Advocacy Coalition was created to bridge the gap between environmental advocacy and citizen diplomacy.

    Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS via Environment360

    Panel: Science and Governance: Overallocation à Climate Change and Megadrought
    C. LaRue was a USGS scientist during the time the Colorado River Compact was written, he shared that the approximation regarding flow rates were made during a very wet period. He testified before congress, but no one really wanted to hear about it because it would make the situation “inconvenient.” The changes in temperature are changing water usage in agriculture through changing evapotranspiration, but these continual changing processes are always being added to the models.

    The Whanganui is a major river on the North Island of New Zealand. The Whanganui River is a major river in the North Island of New Zealand. It is the country’s third-longest river, and has special status owing to its importance to the region’s Māori people. In March 2017 it became the world’s second natural resource (after Te Urewera) to be given its own legal identity, with the rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person. The Whanganui Treaty settlement brought the longest-running litigation in New Zealand history to an end. Dana Zartner, CC BY-ND via The Conversation

    Speaker 8: Bob Adler, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law is supposed to represent societal values and change with those values. Roscoe Pound said that “The law must be stable, but it must not stand still.” In 1922 “beneficial use” was described as human use, this is just one part of the compact being written with an anthropogenic mindset. The idea of the environment was not added to the compact until the 1956 where the idea of natural resources was included, but only on public lands where dams were built. All environmental regulations put in place for conservation purposes lay below the Colorado River. There are constraints politically for moving forward with environmental regulations, through the multiple layers of government. Alder suggested the “Rights of Nature Theory” as a solution to the issues within the basin.

    Day 2: 18 March 2022

    Wheat fields along the Colorado River at the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation. Wheat, alfalfa and melons are among the most important crops here. By Maunus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47854613

    Panel 1: Future Management
    Many management plans are expiring in the years 2025-26, if another plan is not made before then we will fall back to the Department of Interior plan from 1976. Equitable solutions have conflicting objectives of honoring the law that is already in place, but also trying to please all parties. Management decisions going forward must work with legal and political constraints, public involvement and consensus building, and the sound technical knowledge of science. There are different management decisions between the Upper Basin, Lower Basin, Mexico, and the 30 Tribes. It is interesting to talk about these management decisions going forward when there is not even clean water access for everyone within the basin. The lack of the bureaucracy isn’t something the basin is suffering from, but there must be a balance of creating a completely new system while using the system we have as a framework.

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
    @GreatLakesPeck.

    Panel 2: Climate Change and Next Management Framework:
    Brad Udall, a senior water and climate researcher at Colorado State University, reported some climate statistics and warned that we must be open to the possibility of really low flows. As the population grows and we add uses to the river we must also realize that this puts a stress on the river, but these short-term problems do bring light to long term problems for all. Amy Haas of the Colorado River Authority of Utah spoke about how the river has been ravaged and only hard choices are left. These climatic changes are happening so fast that management can’t keep up. She spoke how perfection is no longer attainable and how there must be equity conversations and support between the two basins. Tom Buschatzke is the head of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and he shared statistics about the water usage in Arizona as well as the 30-40% of land in central Arizona that will become fallowed due to the current struggles with water. Arizona has seen a 600% growth in population since 1957 but has seen a 3% decrease in water usage. Finally, Tina Shields of the Imperial Irrigation District shared how 1/6 of jobs in her region are related to agriculture as well as the importance of food safety and security and how the Southwest feeds this country and the world. She finished with a call of need to give farmers more tools so there can be an increase in production and a decrease in water use.

    A slide presented by Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, on Sept. 14, 2018 at the district’s seminar called ‘Risky business on the Colorado River.’ The slide shows how water from the Colorado River system, within the state of Colorado, is used.

    Panel 3: Strategies to Equitably Share Water
    Equity is an emotional issue; it is how we relate to each other. Jack Schmidt, Utah State University, stated how we have created a novel ecosystem of native and non-native species and have completely changed the ecosystem through the addition of dams. There must be a decision made to what part of the river we care about, and what is really going to matter in times of changing temperature. Some parts of the Colorado River have NO water, we must be mindful of this when we create a clear vision of what we want for the future. Jay Weiner, Rosette, LLP, Attorneys at Law who represent some of the native tribes in the basin stated that “what is fair is not necessarily equitable.” Water is flowing upstream to money but there are reservations where there is no access to water rights, yet under prior appropriation the Tribes were “first in time.” Andy Mueller from the Colorado River Conservation District spoke on how agriculture is being painted in a bad light, because majority of ag is working on providing food for the growing populations.

    NOTE: Ms. Isabella M. Ayala was a student in my GEOG 440/540 class, Conflict, Cooperation and Control of Water in the USA during the winter 2022 term at Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR. We studied the Colorado River Basin quite a bit. She asked if she could write a summary of talks at the conference and I agreed. I did not attend the meeting and all I contributed to her summary was some minor corrections. – Michael E. Campana, Professor of Hydrogeology and Water Resources Management, College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, OSU.

    Aspinall Unit forecast for operations March 20, 2022 — Reclamation

    Click the graphic for a larger view.

    Today’s conversations [March 18, 2022, @CUBoulderGWC] inspired me to make a centennial edition of the Lees Ferry flows chart, now with some annotations. Let me know what else you see! — Lauren Steeley @MadreDeZanjas #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Two photos associated with Lauren’s tag “1883 El Niño after effects”.

    The Lees Ferry streamgage then and now.

    A dangerous game of chicken on the #ColoradoRiver — Writers on the Range #COriver #aridification

    Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (Kyle Roerink):

    Seven Western states and their leaders — all depending on water from the Colorado River — remain divided.

    September 21, 1923, 9:00 a.m. — Colorado River at Lees Ferry. From right bank on line with Klohr’s house and gage house. Old “Dugway” or inclined gage shows to left of gage house. Gage height 11.05′, discharge 27,000 cfs. Lens 16, time =1/25, camera supported. Photo by G.C. Stevens of the USGS.
    Source: 1921-1937 Surface Water Records File, Colorado R. @ Lees Ferry, Laguna Niguel Federal Records Center, Accession No. 57-78-0006, Box 2 of 2 , Location No. MB053635.

    Split into basins by an imaginary border at Lees Ferry, Arizona, each state can share blame for the rapid depletion of reservoirs that once held over four years’ flow of the Colorado River. But now, Lake Powell and Lake Mead edge closer to empty. With water savings gone, the Lower Basin has been trying to cope, though the Upper Basin carries on business as usual. Meanwhile, 40 millions Americans depend on flows from this over-diverted river.

    So far, leaders in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming appear to be hoping that their counterparts will agree to use less water. This is hardly a useful strategy and seems a lot like a dangerous game of chicken.

    The brunt of low flows has been borne by the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. Thanks to a series of agreements between 2007 and 2021, by the end of this year the three states will curtail their river use by more than 1 million acre-feet — 325 billion gallons. But it’s likely these cuts won’t change much.

    Federal data released last month predict that Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation and the Lower Basin’s water savings account, will continue to lose water for years to come. Lake Powell, the Upper Basin’s savings account, is also vulnerable. But that raises the obvious question: What are Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico doing to limit their water use and conserve? The answer is not much.

    In the Upper Basin’s four states there are no self-imposed curtailments of Colorado River allocations — no blockbuster, big-city conservation initiatives, no real signs that leaders are convinced that climate change is not only happening but also a major threat to the region.

    More discouraging is that in 2016, the interstate collective of Upper Basin officials, known as the Upper Colorado River Commission, officially decided to take more water out of the river. That decision stands today.

    Lake Powell Pipeline map via the Washington County Water Conservancy District, October 25, 2020.

    Some of the largest projects on the Upper Basin’s wish list include the Lake Powell Pipeline, Green River Block Exchange, Wolf Creek Reservoir, and the Fontenelle Dam expansion…

    Does anyone think that extra water exists?

    The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Colorado River’s infrastructure, released a report in mid-February that predicts Lake Mead will drop another 30 feet by the end of 2023 –– leaving the reservoir 160 feet lower than in the year 2000. It also predicts more cuts for Nevada’s and Arizona’s shares of the river, as well as for California.

    In the Upper Basin, where the Colorado River begins, no cuts are proposed. And according to a new report from the Utah River’s Council, a nonprofit fiscal and water watchdog, most of the Upper Basin states continue to use more than their share of the river, even though drought and aridity have reduced river flows.

    While the three Lower Basin states use more water than the drought-stricken Colorado can deliver annually, leaders in Arizona, Nevada and California share a spirit of sacrifice when it comes to limiting water use. From my experience running a nonprofit river-protection group, I know that collaboration toward these efforts represents a resolve to act.

    The Lower Basin states, for example, are working to fund a water-recycling facility near Los Angeles. The plant would reduce California’s reliance on the Colorado River and give Nevada and Arizona some of that river water in return for their joint funding. Collaborations like this need to start happening in the Upper Basin, but where are the examples?

    Water managers in both basins tell folks they are doing their best to deal with the river’s decline, but only the Lower Basin’s actions can be quantified. It’s time for the Upper Basin to blink in this game of chicken and ensure equitable and prudent uses of the river. The lines dividing the states are invisible, but bathtub rings on Lake Powell and Lake Mead are all too visible.

    Kyle Roerink via Writers on the range.

    Kyle Roerink is a contributor to Writers on the Range, http://writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a nonprofit that defends water supplies from undue political and corporate influence in the nation’s two driest states, Nevada and Utah.

    Data Dump: Glen Canyon dips into hydropower buffer zone; #LakePowell hits 3,525 feet — @Land_Desk #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Lake Powell just north of Glen Canyon Dam. January 2022. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

    Click the link to read the article on the Land Desk website (Jonathan Thompson):

    Lake Powell surface level dropped below the critical 3,525-foot mark sometime on the Ides of March. You’ve probably already read that somewhere, since the national media can’t seem to get enough of the slow motion desiccation of one of the nation’s largest reservoirs. And what’s so critical about 3,525 feet?

    Nothing, really.

    The real critical number is 3,490 feet, otherwise known as the “minimum power pool.” When Lake Powell sinks below that elevation, Glen Canyon Dam can no longer produce hydropower. That’s a big deal because Lake Powell really only serves two purposes these days: recreation and hydropower generation (the water storage component becomes somewhat irrelevant when Lake Mead is as low as it is now). Not only are the dam’s turbines a significant source of power for the Western Grid, but they also provide resilience for the grid in a way that other generators cannot.

    Water managers had hoped to keep the level at least 35 feet above minimum power pool, i.e. above 3,525 feet, so they’d have a bit of a buffer to work with. Now the level is inside the buffer zone, which is reason for concern but not immediate alarm. While the rate of decline has prompted officials to issue a more pessimistic outlook for the reservoir, they don’t expect a loss of hydropower anytime soon. Snowpack levels in the watersheds that feed Lake Powell are slightly below average for this time of year, but are tracking about 7 percent ahead of last year’s levels. Spring runoff will soon begin, inflows will increase, and the lake should begin rising again, staving off the turbine shutdown—for now.

    Let’s get to the data:

  • 3,569 feet above sea level: Lake Powell’s surface level on March 9, 2021.
  • 3,524.9 feet: Level on March 15, 2021.
  • -44 feet: Twelve-month change.
  • 3,490 feet: Level at which Glen Canyon Dam stops producing hydropower.
  • 384 billion gallons: Amount by which Lake Powell’s storage has declined since November 2021.
  • 855,656 megawatt hours: August 2021 output of Four Corners Power Plant.
  • 309,640 megawatt hours: August 2021 output of Glen Canyon Dam
  • Lake Powell storage in acre-feet. 1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons. USBR.
    Glen Canyon Dam’s power output roughly correlates with storage levels, but also varies month to month according to demand. USBR.
    As water levels drop there is less pressure to turn the dam’s turbines, so less power is generated per unit of water released.